2013 Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc
August 30-31, 2013 — Chamonix, France
28:52:24 — 86th (out of 1685)
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In August 2013 I flew to Europe to compete in the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, a 105-mile mountain race circumnavigating the Graian Alps of France, Italy and Switzerland. What follows is an (unabridged) account of my experience running the event.
Chamonix to Les Contamines (Mile 0 to 22)
I arrived by bus in downtown Chamonix ninety minutes before the start—surely enough time to beat my way through the masses if needed. Though the waning days of August typically mark the end of a long summer tourist season in Chamonix, the streets—for perhaps the last time until ski season—swarmed with humanity. I braced myself for the inevitable mob scene and stepped from the crowded bus into the bustling town square.
The Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (or UTMB) is currently the largest single-stage mountain ultramarathon in the world. Though it dates back only to 2003, generous sponsorship from The North Face, a prominent outdoor retailer, has grown the event into a week-long mountain running festival, testing the endurance of runners and locals alike.
This past year over 2500 runners qualified for the UTMB through a rigorous point-driven lottery system and descended upon Chamonix to take on the 105-mile circumnavigation of the Mont Blanc massif—an iconic route scaling nine mountain passes, crossing three national boundaries and tracing out one behemoth Alpine loop. Thousands more partook in the CCC, TDS and PTL—sibling events held during the same crazy week. Needless to say, Chamonix valley was at capacity.
I slid through the crowd observing hundreds of fit, lean bodies wrapped in neon compression gear, the apparent fashion trend among European ultrarunners. My Pearl Izumi shorts and singlet seemed downright baggy in comparison. A cacophony comprised of indistinguishable, indecipherable chatter filled the air and I felt very lonesome, limited to the company of my English thoughts.
Only by a bib number, adorned with an illustrated flag of his or her country, could I fathom a guess at a given runner’s homeland. Spain, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Japan… no fewer than a hundred nations must’ve been represented here. My own bib displayed Uncle Sam’s stars and stripes, apparently a rarity that drew thumbs up and spontaneous chants of “USA, USA!” throughout this truly international competition.
Eventually I made my way to the Hotel Alpina—race headquarters—where I, as well as the rest of the elite field, had been instructed to arrive. How I received “elite” designation still mystifies me, but it took me by surprise when, the day prior, a race official pulled me from the check-in queue and escorted me past the bag-check station to an inconspicuous white tent where a burly young nurse with a needle drew a sample of my blood for an anti-doping test. I guess you’ve made it in endurance sports when they check your blood for illicit drugs.
In addition to having my arm stuck, UTMB marked many firsts for me as an ultrarunner. First, runners are required to carry an extensive inventory of gear: cell phone, two headlamps, space blanket, waterproof pants and gloves, elastic splint—things I’d never even thought of back home. In training I’d learned how to cram the full list into an Ultimate Direction “Scott Jurek” Ultra Vest which bulged unhappily under the disproportionate load.
Second, at no point on the course are runners allowed a pacer—someone who runs alongside late in the race to support and motivate a weary runner. In my first three hundred-milers I’d relied on my pacer from mile 75 onward if for nothing more than a source of stories and entertainment. Clearly the UTMB was meant to be a more self-supported effort.
Finally, I’d grown accustomed to cold, pre-dawn race starts like Leadville (4:00am) and Wasatch (5:00am). In contrast, the UTMB began at 4:30pm on a hot, cloudless afternoon—a time at which I’m more inspired by a nap than a century run. All of these aspects added challenge and excitement to a new experience.
With thirty minutes to go, we “elites” were led from the relative comfort and quiet of the hotel lobby back through the mayhem outside to an exclusive corral directly beneath the starting arch. Behind us, two-thousand other runners were crammed like sardines into a narrow enclosure stretching back beyond the church—as far as the eye could see. They had probably camped out all day in the hot sun for just a mediocre start position.
As the minutes counted down, deafening Euro-techno reverberated throughout the square competing only with the cheering, screaming crowds. It felt more like a concert mosh pit than the start of an ultramarathon. Typically the low-key nature of ultramarathons appeals to me, but here the excessive, over-the-top, contagious energy was hard to dismiss. Even with the monumental task ahead, I couldn’t resist getting caught up in this unique moment.
Suddenly the techno cut and Conquest of Paradise rose from the loudspeakers, shifting the tone from “Let’s party!” to “Let’s battle to the death!” Though rays of late afternoon sun beat down unrepressed, a shiver rippled down my spine. I glanced to my left, then to my right: Julien Chorier, Seb Chaigneau, Mike Foote, Mike Wolfe, Jez Bragg, Timothy Olson, Anton Krupicka and others—heroes and idols, their resumes far deeper than my own—and felt proud (if a bit unworthy) to stand amongst them.
Then I felt a warm mist on my left leg. Startled, I looked down and made a horrifying discovery: the Spaniard next to me was urinating freely in the crowded corral. Without a moment to react, a blast signaled the start and we lurched forward.
Like Pamplona’s bulls we accelerated through a deafening gauntlet of screams and once, twice, three times I narrowly avoided impalement by errant trekking poles, their sharpened tips waving wildly about, protruding from other runner’s packs. After several minutes of sheer survival running, the narrow corral opened onto two lanes of pavement and down the road we barreled beneath cloudless skies—the first fair weather start in four years at the UTMB.
The course led us down a gravel path along l’Arve—the river flushing through Chamonix Valley—to Les Houches (mile 5). Our pace felt foolishly quick, like that of a road half marathon, but I struggled to rein it in. I didn’t want to become trapped behind a mule train going up the first climb. Thankfully, as we hit the steep 2500-foot ascent, the pack thinned and I charged up the hill.
Atop Le Delevret (mile 10) I enjoyed my first fleeting moments of relative peace until a helicopter rose from nowhere and buzzed the ridge, presumably shooting race footage. I dropped into the trees south of the ridge and began to descend the steep, grassy slope as gently as possible to minimize any premature quad-mashing so early in the race.
As I approached the valley floor the slope gave way to cobblestones, a transition that would become routine through almost every village along the route, and I arrived in Saint Gervais (mile 13) at 6:45pm, just over two hours into this great adventure. I sailed through another tunnel of screaming spectators and couldn’t suppress a huge grin across my face. Never before had I experienced such lively spectator support at any other trail race, let alone a hundred miler. At races like Wasatch and Bighorn, on rare occasions I’d actually encounter other humans on the trail, they’d often stare at me like I was some scantily-clad freak lost in the woods. In Europe, however, they admire you for the same exact thing.
I topped off the water in my half-liter Platypus flasks, tucked them back into my left and right breast pockets, grabbed a French cookie from the aid station table and stuffed it in my mouth, then carried on some 110 places behind the leader. One climb down, eight to go. I’d barely scratched the surface.
Les Contamines to Courmayeur (Mile 22 to 48)
Though it marked the beginning of UTMB’s largest climb gaining 5600 feet to the Col du Bonhomme, the seven mile stretch from Saint Gervais to Les Contamines (mile 22) was perhaps the most runnable on the entire route. The trail meandered at a gradual incline through green pastures, home to some of the healthiest dairy cows I’ve ever seen, and through the backyards of beautiful stone cottages, their construction dating back to who-knows-when, where French families had gathered to dine and cheer as runners passed. Peaks perpetually loomed overhead; I’d crane my neck to glimpse them, and even then suspected their true summits remained out of sight. The race often felt more like a sight-seeing tour than a competition.
As I approached Les Contamines, a figure stood trailside, staring at me. “Gary? What the hell are you doing?” I exclaimed. “I thought you were way ahead of me!” I’d spent the week prior scoping bits of the course with Gary Robbins, a notable Canadian ultrarunner and one of the few other English speakers I’d managed to link up with. Gary held high expectations for this race, and rightfully so given his familiarity of the UTMB course and respectable track record. “I feel like hell,” he responded. “Something’s seriously wrong. My legs feel tight; I’ve got no energy. I’m going to drop.” “Gary, it’s early! Give it some time, things will improve!” I begged. “Have a good race man,” he replied. And with that, Gary dropped from the race, a sobering reminder that, like any hundred-mile race, there would be heavy attrition. It would be my mission not to succumb to it.
I breezed through Les Contamines and up the road to Notre Dame de la Gorge, an ancient church where the real climb began. Temperatures dropped as the evening sun dipped behind the towering crags, providing relief from the early heat. Hundreds of spectators lined the rocky ascent and I marched up the dusky trail enjoying the encouragement offered in many foreign forms. Allez! Bravo! Forza! I returned as many “Mercis” as I could and slapped high-fives with enthusiastic children who ran beside me.
Half way up the climb I reached the Refuge Balme (mile 25). Darkness had swallowed up dusk, so I removed my pack to dig out a headlamp. I also used this opportunity to deploy my Black Diamond Z-Poles, a pair of nearly weightless carbon fiber sticks whose integrity I’d questioned at first, but in training quickly became perhaps my favorite piece of gear. Their use meant I could better engage my upper body and avoid undue stress on the legs.
As I crested the Col du Bonhomme, I found myself in complete solitude for the very first time. My surroundings had surrendered to darkness and I plodded forward in silence, led by the ethereal glow of my headlamp. At some point I paused to gaze up into the night sky. A billion stars shone down – the same little specks of light visible on a clear night back home in Durango – a facade of familiarity amidst this foreign landscape. I looked back toward Les Contamines and admired the string of tiny, white headlamps creating a dotted outline of the switchbacks far below.
The focus required to navigate a technical descent in a strange place at night is significant—especially when you’re already thirty miles deep. My memories from this stretch of the race are tough to recall, likely because darkness robs the stunning views leaving nothing tangible to stick in one’s mind. I vaguely remember the stink of an outhouse as I shuffled by an invisible lake, but my mind wandered ahead to Courmayeur (mile 48), my first major mental “checkpoint” where I’d finally see my crew.
Up the Col de la Seigne, down to Lac Combal, up the Arete du Mont Favre, down to the Col Chucroit. The vertical relief of each climb and descent was extreme, but my legs and stomach held strong. My cautious descents and diet of gels, Hammer bars and water seemed to be doing the trick. As I pulled into the Chucroit aid station and devoured a small bowl of mixed fruit, it dawned on me that these volunteers spoke quickly and laughed more than those at previous aid stations. Italians, of course! I’d been running through another country for at least ten miles and hadn’t realized it. “Grazi!” I exclaimed as I returned to the trail and continued my descent to Courmayeur.
Courmayeur is Chamonix’s sister city. Once separated by the 15,000 foot citadel of Mont Blanc, a six-mile tunnel now connects the two making travel between them quick and relatively painless, if a bit pricey. While Courmayeur is just shy of half way on the UTMB course, any seasoned hundred-miler knows that in reality, the battle is far from half over. Beyond fifty miles anything can—and will—happen. A wise ultrarunner once said, “He who slows down the least wins.” I try to remind myself that as the miles and fatigue accumulate.
The long, dark, dusty descent finally gave way to streetlights and cobblestones. I followed course flags into a narrow alley and made my way through the lifeless city streets, though I suppose at 3:00am even rational Italians are fast asleep. One final turn led me up the stairs and through the doors of a well-lit structure—the town recreation center. I scanned the small crowd within and smiled when I saw a pair of familiar faces: the Gosneys.
I can’t express how much I appreciate my Durango cohorts Brett and Missy Gosney. They flew in the morning of the race and, despite the jetlag, jumped to action as my crew. While I’d like to claim they flew to France just for me, this was for them a convenient preview of their own upcoming challenge—the Tor des Geants—a 205-mile loop of the entire Aosta Valley of northern Italy, but I’ll save that for another write-up!
UTMB regulations allow for just a single crewperson, so while Missy helped me restock my pack and refill my bottles, Brett shouted questions from behind a temporary barrier. “How are your legs?” “Good!” “How’s your stomach?” “Good!” In all honesty I did feel pretty damn good given ten hours on my feet. Eager to continue, I thanked the Gosneys and told them to “get some sleep!” At this pace I’d see them again in Champex in nine hours. I emerged from the warm edifice back into the brisk Italian night.
Courmayeur to Champex (Mile 48 to 76)
Through Courmayeur’s silent streets I jogged, an eerie contrast to the incessant hullaballoo in Chamonix, making my way north toward the next big climb: an abrupt pitch to the Rifugio Bertone. This was, as one might say, where “shit got real.” The trail grew rocky, then steep, then rockier and steeper still. I levered into my trekking poles trying to alleviate as much force from my legs as possible, but could sense my pace slowing.
At a small rocky outcropping I finally had to stop and collect myself. The streetlights of Courmayeur still shone, but now appeared to be in a hole several thousand feel far below me. Stars swirled around my head and obscured my vision. I grew dizzy, took a few deep breaths, a swig of water and listened to my thumping heart amidst the utter silence. While the thought of returning to Courmayeur and pulling the plug crossed my mind, I quickly shed the negativity and slogged onward.
I never actually saw the Rifugio Bertone, just a table of measly offerings staffed with a couple cold, grumpy Italians. It was still dark and the pre-dawn chill had penetrated to my skin. I stopped so they could scan my bib, then lumbered on in ceaseless pursuit of the void beyond my headlamp’s glow. Where the hell was the Goddamn sun?
Along the high ridge beyond Bertone, I spotted a faint outline of something massive across the Val Ferret to my left. Through the dark emerged a stunning panorama of jagged peaks—the Grandes Jorassess—some of the most pronounced spires of rock and ice in the Alps. Trees began to appear from the shadows, and as morning approached, the landscape rematerialized until at last I could extinguish my headlamp.
Anyone who runs through the night will agree that the new day brings new energy. With a kick in my stride and my spirits elevated, I descended a grassy ridge to Arnuva (mile 59), then began the arduous climb up the Gran Col Ferret—the highest point on the course and passage to Switzerland. Despite the imminent sun, the air grew colder as I ascended. Above tree line a brisk wind whipped over the tundra and I found myself adding layers rather than removing them.
I could now spot the movement of other competitors on the trail above, a reminder that I was not alone on this journey. At last I reached the ridge, and with it, sunshine. A flood of warmth sent shivers down my spine and feeling crept back into my fingers and toes. Within a half hour I’d stripped back to my shorts and singlet; another warm, cloudless day was about to unfold.
The descent from the Gran Col Ferret was the longest on the course, dropping a vertical mile over a half marathon. As the air grew thick and humid, my legs grew tight and shaky. Runners began to pass with increasing frequency; either they were gaining strength or I was losing it. My mind grew dull and I struggled to focus on foot placement, let alone my nutrition and hydration needs.
Somewhere during the descent a stocky guy with a dark crop of hair and tall, white compression socks up to his knees ran up beside me and began speaking English in a thick, eastern European accent. In slurred words I admitted how terrible I felt and how dropping out at the next checkpoint sounded awfully nice. To that he adamantly insisted, “No, man! Do not queet! You cannot queet! You have come too far to queet! You can do it, man! Please do not queet!” And with that, he took off, leaving me alone to contemplate my fate.
Around 10:00am I dragged myself into La Fouly (mile 68), threw my pack on a bench and sat, utterly depleted, my head cradled in my hands, my stomach in a tangle. I’d lost dozens of positions on the descent and could feel my desire to compete—even just to finish this damn thing—slipping away. Several minutes passed then I stood, ambled to the food table, impulsively seized a thick stack of salami and devoured it. The oily meat tasted so salty, so delicious, that I grabbed a few more slices and chewed them slowly, one at a time.
Had it not been for the fact that Brett and Missy were waiting for me some eight miles down the road at Champex, I’d have dropped in La Fouly. But faced with the hassle of hitching a ride from foreigners, I figured walking there would be less troublesome. So again I shouldered my pack and, betraying every shred of will in my mind and body, shuffled out of the aid station tent back into the late morning sun.
The sun crept higher cooking my bare shoulders and legs, and my stomach moaned and grumbled from my impromptu salami breakfast. Dozens of runners flew by. But as I trudged down the steady, unending descent I held an internal debate on the matter of quitting. Back and forth the argument wavered until consensus emerged.
The beauty of scraping rock bottom is that once you’re there, it can only improve. I’d invested months of my life and much of my savings to be here in the Alps, running one of the most iconic races in the sport. I’d qualified and been lucky in the lottery. I’d built up anticipation among my friends and family and knew many of them were following along, tracking my status an ocean away. The Romanian guy was right, I can’t queet. I might never again have the opportunity—or the finances—to return. Almost symbolically I arrived at one of the lowest points on the course—Praz del Fort—then churned my way up 1500 vertical feet to Champex (mile 76).
“Brendan!” I looked up and saw Brett standing there, presumably relieved to see me as I’d fallen significantly off pace. “How do you feel?” I couldn’t lie. “Like shit,” I said. “I’m tight, cramped and tired. Not sure if I can go on.” Brett calmly walked me into the aid station and quickly deduced that my electolytes were completely out of whack. Drinking water alone for twenty hours had diluted my stomach, making digestion near impossible, and now I was exhibiting symptoms of hyponatremia—a severe dearth of salt. That delicious salami had been a sign.
In the Champex aid station, I downed a handful of salt capsules and drowned them in Nuun while Missy pulled wads of spent gel and bar wrappers from my pack and replaced them with enough fresh calories for another ten hours. Not once was my inclination to quit mentioned. With the Gosneys you keep going. Period. Before I knew it I was back on the trail making relentless forward progress.
Champex to Chamonix (Mile 76 to 105)
As I skirted the rolling perimeter of Lake Champex, my body rallied. Sugary gels, for which I’d lost my appetite miles ago, once again appealed to my senses. My achy hip flexors released, and I even managed a sustainable jog to the foot of the next big climb. But as glaring rays of midday sun cooked the gravel beneath my feet and radiated upward, I yawned.
I spied an old pine, its trunk wrapped in a blanket of soft, lush grass shaded beneath an outstretched bough. It beckoned, “Come, lie down for a minute. You know you want to take a nap!” I yawned again, stopped and gave the tree a longing look. A nap did sound wonderful. Heck, I’d been running for twenty-two hours and awake for more than thirty. Why shouldn’t I? No! I wrestled myself away from the spell, but soon caught myself ogling yet another spot of shade a few hundred meters up the trail.
Then it struck me. Via! Indeed I’d made the lucky last minute decision to tuck two tiny packets of Starbucks instant coffee into one of my many pockets, but their presence had escaped me until now. Without hesitation I extracted one, tore it open and poured the contents down my throat, washing down the bitter granules with a quick swig of Nuun. Have you ever seen Popeye when he shotguns a can of spinach? That’s how it felt, only with caffeine instead of leafy greens. Within fifteen minutes, I was reborn.
I charged up Bovine (mile 83)—the first of three remaining climbs—and though the grade steepened, my stride lengthened, my turnover quickened and I began to pass runners left and right. In Italy I’d lost my groove, but in Switzerland I’d recovered it. I flew down the trail toward Trient (mile 85), breezed through the aid station and continued straight up the opposing ridge. Fueled by adrenaline and coffee I hurtled forth, hell bent on reaching Chamonix before second nightfall.
Again, my memories from this stretch are faint. With laser-like focus on the finish line and the compounded effects of a day on the run, my mind retained little capacity to accomplish much else. I do however recall catching a friendly bloke from the UK—Dan from Liverpool—who seemed to be enjoying a comparable rebound. Together we dropped toward Vallorcine (mile 90) picking off other race casualties and blathering to each other about the enormity of the UTMB, the Beatles, and the likelihood of reaching Chamonix before dark. As the sun sank slowly toward the western horizon, I knew it would be close.
Dan and I crossed the road at the Col des Montets (mile 95) and began the final climb: a prolonged set of short, steep switchbacks straight up a rock face. From a distance an unassuming bystander might simply see a cliff. The trail grew rocky and absurdly technical at times, a cruel trick for the final ten miles of a 105-mile race.
I began to pull away from Dan and soon found myself, once again, all alone. I glanced down at my watch, its blank face indicating its demise hours ago. I could tell by the shadows, however, as they crept slowly from the valley floor up the buttresses of Mont Blanc itself threatening to swallow it whole, that the end of another day drew near.
The incessant undulation of the ridge provided false hope, then despair, as it would descend briefly only to reverse its pitch and climb once more. As the tiny lights of Chamonix came into view several thousand feet below me I surged again. There was still a lot of trail to descend and plenty of opportunity to twist an ankle in the failing light.
To the east, Mont Blanc vanished into darkness and however tempting it was to stop and admire the view, I much preferred the idea of being done. To sustain a running pace, the ankle-wrenching rocks at my feet demanded every shred of focus I could spare. The top of the chairlift at La Flegere (mile 101) would indicate just a four-mile remaining descent into town.
At last, the glow of a tent in the dusky light emerged and I approached the final aid station. Hardly breaking stride I blasted through the checkpoint and down an endless series of switchbacks riddled with hundreds of loose, grapefruit-sized rocks. You’ve got to be kidding me! In fear of suffering a debilitating ankle twist this late in the race, I responsibly stopped, extricated my headlamp and fixed it upon my head. In four 100-mile races, this was my first time entering the dreaded second night.
I felt the fierce pull of Chamonix’s gravity and accelerated to a near sprint, leaving the trail and hitting pavement for the final f@&%ing time. “Hell yeah, Brendan!” shouted a voice from a bicycle. Though I couldn’t see his face, I instantly recognized Gary’s voice. We exchanged a few words as he pedaled beside me, but I can’t recall them; my body was burning pure adrenaline now. Down the street I flew, past restaurant patios packed with patrons dining on rich French cheeses and swilling fancy wine. They clapped and cheered as I barreled past. Though I’d missed the cutoff of dark, at least I finished at the height of supper; the streets were bursting with life.
At some point Missy and Brett appeared beside me. I made a right turn, then another right turn, letting the fences guide me in. Then, after one last turn, the big, red “North Face” finish line arch appeared and I sprinted beneath it. Done at last.
It took me 28 hours and 52 minutes to circumnavigate Mont Blanc—departing Friday at 4:30pm and returning Saturday at 9:22 pm—good enough to place 80th overall and third American male. It blows my mind that someone finished nearly eight hours ahead of me; and I find it equally impressive that someone finished nearly eighteen hours behind me! Such is the beauty of the distance.
The Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc belongs on any ultrarunner’s bucket list. Simply put, the race is gnarly and tough, scenic and beautiful, and one of the best supported hundred-milers you’ll ever run, not to mention a full-on intercultural experience. Given the chance, I’d return in a heartbeat.