Time after time I have found myself lining up for races with family members along on the adventure to help crew and pace. It is calming and reassuring to have familiar faces around when you are both doing well and also struggling. This August, I toed the line for my first attempt at the UTMB, and my mother Nancy and stepfather Jeff were there to support me. What follows is my perspective along with theirs as we made our way from France to Italy to Switzerland and then finally back to France again.
Mile Zero – Chamonix, France – Friday, 6:00 p.m.
As the streets become increasingly populated, the ambient noise also intensifies. My focus is on finding my mother and stepfather prior to the start. With the start/finish arch in sight, the mixture of participants, spectators, volunteers, race personnel, vendors, and locals is so dense that I literally feel like I am lost in a crowd. My heart starts racing and each beat is so pronounced that I catch myself looking down to see if my heart is protruding from my chest. I imagine that every bystander can spot my unmistakable anxiety. Before I completely panic, I spot my mother and circumvent the crowd. I feel white as a ghost, I feel nerves that I have never felt before, and I know I am not hiding it well. She immediately asks, “Are you okay?” I mumble something, hand her my finish-line bag, and walk toward the corral while trying to release the uneasiness. My mom seems excited, she is in the moment, and this reminds me that my heart does not want this to be all about my fear. I want to enjoy this moment for myself and for the other competitors. I want to fully recognize the training I have done and the journey that waits. I find many familiar faces lined up at the start line and, as my mind and body begin to settle, I am blown away by the energy and passion of my surroundings.
Nancy and Jeff:
Way too warm. A drone hovering overhead. Lots of excitement and energy in the air as spectators, crews, and runners all wait for the start. We all know our roles and want to get started.
Our first report from Aliza: Some of the elite men at the start line are peeing and it’s splashing everyone’s feet. Yuck! It’s exciting ringing our new cowbells that we purchased at the foundry in Chamonix just for this purpose. They’re off and we head to catch our first crew bus out of Chamonix. So far so good!
Mile 24 – Les Contamines, France – Friday, 8:00 p.m.
Just short of four hours since the race started, but I am eager to see my parents at the first crew point. I remind myself that the key to this first stop is making sure I am prepared with the correct gear and enough fuel to run through the entire night and into the morning as I anticipate it will be approximately nine hours before being crewed again.
Throughout the first portion of the race, I find myself summarizing my experience in easy-to-remember phrases so I can have something to share with my crew. Starting from the beginning and progressing in order, I’ve wrapped up the entire first 30k with the following phrases: wafting stale farts, bug buffet, sweaty and snotty, and bovine blunder. I figure, since I have no pressing issues like stomach problems or blisters, it will be nice to have something to share. I was never good as a child sharing with my mom what happened at school or sports, so maybe now is a great time to start sharing. I enter the Les Contamines aid station running and it is jamming, but my mom is on her game, waving her arms to grab my attention. As I swap out trash for a fresh supply of calories, she tells me where I am in the field. I rudely interrupt her so to not hear any more, “Mom, I have no interest in what other females are doing!” I know she is trying to help, but also know it’s too early for my focus to be on anything except for myself. Before I even remember to share my collection of phrases, I am back out on the trail.
Nancy and Jeff:
Still way too warm. Still lots of excitement and energy–a party atmosphere. We get to see Zach Miller go through. We have everything organized and ready for our expected time slot to head into the aid station. They tell me, “No. Come back in 10 minutes.” I wait and try again in 10. And again I am told, “No, come back in 10.” That’s when I insist–she will be coming soon. “Okay, you can come in.” I’m ready for Aliza and expect her to take a few minutes to have some food and tell me about how it’s going. I give her all the supplies on her list and offer her a few extra choices. No! She’s off!
Jeff and I head off to catch the bus back to Chamonix. Oh my god, her poles, I didn’t give them to her. Did she pick them up or are they still lying on the floor? It’s going to be a long night.
Mile 49 – Courmayeur, Italy – Saturday, 3:00 a.m.
I am content where I am running and have fallen into a good group of people to run with. I’ve now got one sunset and one sunrise under my belt and am still feeling good, both physically and mentally. The descent down into Courmayeur takes longer than it should and this slow decent gives me time to recall my phrases to share with my crew: moonlight mountain silhouettes, trailing torches, field fortifications, and talus and screaming scree. I find excitement running into the Courmayeur aid-station building. Little things like running in buildings, which normally is taboo, brings me perverse pleasure. I find myself smiling and am brought back to the task at hand as my mother again waves me down. She has a chair pulled aside for me and I immediately sit. I get distracted and look around and immediately notice there are a lot of runners milling around. Once again I am brought to focus with my mom asking me, once, twice, or maybe three times, “Do you want to change your shoes?” I change my socks and shoes and then am handed my protein drink, which goes down easily. My mom seems a little scattered, trying to tend to all of my needs while also ensuring I don’t depart without the proper amount of calories and liquid. After leaving her, I feel like I am doing okay and looking okay as I can usually tell from her comments, voice, or body language that I am teetering on the edge of something that a mother does not want for their child no matter their age.
Nancy and Jeff:
Yes, still too warm. I think the spectators from earlier in the evening are all now home in their beds. Crewing for Aliza, we are used to hurry, hurry, hurry and typically we need to drive the back mountain roads and find our way to the next aid station before hiking in. Things are very different for this race. The buses are plentiful and right where they say they will be. And amazingly on time! Never more than a half mile to walk. The Courmayeur aid station is at a ski area. We have several hours to wait so we roll out our sleeping bags on the lawn and try to nap while runners start coming in. Too much excitement, but at least we’re comfortable.
It’s dark and overcast so we can’t see the mountain profile, only an occasional headlamp snaking its way down the mountain. Again, we organize her supplies and mix up her drink mix. Checklist: We have a change of shoes and dry socks, protein drink, a bag of yummy snacks, water–both ‘with gas’ and without–and a few other options. As it gets close to Aliza’s expected time, I try to get into the aid station. “Come back in 30 minutes.” This time in Italian instead of French. Thirty minutes and I’m in. The place looks a bit nasty. I think someone threw up and they tried to hose it away. P-U!
Okay, she’s in. Still on schedule.
This time, the crew side of the aid station is first and then the runners-only side–just the opposite of Les Contamines. I decide to fill up her hydration pack so she won’t have to do it next door. Change of shoes and socks, gulp down her protein drink, and a few words that sort of sound something like, “This is f’n hard.” I ask her, “Anything to eat?” I receive a short and stiff, “No!” And she’s off. Whew! And oh, yes, she does have her poles.
As Jeff and I head down to catch the bus, it is just light enough so we can actually see the mountain that we had watched headlamps come down earlier. Oh my! F’n hard is right! Back on the bus and headed back to Chamonix. We are starting to feel the effects of living out of bags for a couple days of crewing. Everything we need is in the few bags we are schlepping around the Alps and it’s starting to get old and smelly!
Mile 77 – Champex-Lac, Switzerland – Saturday, 11:00 a.m.
Heading out into the streets of Courmayeur, I go from riding a wave of excitement to a dose of reality as the pavement heads upward, back toward the mountains. I try to stay positive and patient on the climb to Refuge Bertone, to allow the calories I just consumed to kick in. It’s starting to get hot, it’s very dry, and the air is stagnant. I am still content with my position and progress. I know that the time until I see my parents again should only be a few hours now and this aids with my motivation. As the miles pass, events, sights, and situations prompt more phrases: sleepy Sproston, glacier gulps, cliffhanger, assault on Col Ferret, and lost in translation. Heading into this aid station, I halfheartedly acknowledge to my mother that I am struggling. I share with her that I ran out of water before a long climb in the heat of the day. I know that the lack of water and calories put a governor on my pace and mood, but I know she senses this too as she asks me, “Do you want to hold my hand?” As walk into the aid station, I feel Brian Rusiecki there, who should be hours in front of me.
Nancy and Jeff:
Way too hot! Thirty degrees Celsius and not enough water. A beautiful village way up in the hills, simply breathtaking. The bus ride up here is breathtaking as well. Both because it is so beautiful, but also because I have never been on a bus before that has to back down a switchback to swing it wider. We bottom out on the inside of several switchbacks. Instead of two inches from the edge we are now one inch. Breathtaking!
We are way ahead of schedule. Jeff takes a frigid dip in the lake and I pace. And we wait.
This aid station does a good job with culture entertainment and exposure. A few St. Bernard dogs hooked to a rescue cart are on display. A man plays a round, Swiss-type of horn and an accordion player provides traditional music. Brian Rusiecki shows up and decides he’s done racing. He wants to rest and then run with Aliza when she shows up. I feel better knowing she will have someone with her.
Aliza is very happy to see Brian waiting for her. He is rested and very well fed at this point. Not sure he left any chocolate behind for the other runners. Aliza is now behind her projected schedule, but is still running with her pack of runners.
Mile 87 – Trient, Switzerland – Saturday, 5:00 p.m.
I literally have no recollection of this section or crew session.
Nancy and Jeff:
Hot, but at the same time clouds are forming and there’s a breeze. Aliza is still way ahead of most runners but loosing time on her schedule. The town (composed of just one street) is busy preparing for a night of hosting runners, crew, and spectators. There is a fundraiser tent selling yummies to benefit the town school. I ask for what I think is a piece of pizza but actually turns out to be a piece of peach tart. Not what I want, but good!
She’s in, but it’s clear she is not very happy. Her profile map is not accurate. She leaves without taking much food. I’m not happy that Aliza has abandoned her pre-race nutrition plan. We are all overtired and the first signs of a storm are rolling in. It’s going to be a long, second night.
Mile 94 – Vallorcine, France – Saturday, 8:00 p.m.
The segment on paper sounds manageable, but I notice that the dark-cloud clusters are becoming more and more prevalent. Before I can pull out my jacket, a light rain starts to fall, which is followed by thunder and lightning. By the time I am up on the ridge, the storm is directly overhead. This section is best summarized with the phrases of personal panic and the wheels coming off. By the time I enter the Vallorcine aid station, I am moving at what I would deem a moping pace. I am soaking wet and fearing that I have irrevocably blown what I had worked to earn over the first 130k. Both my mom and my stepfather are in the aid station, ready to meet me. Wet clothes off, dry clothes on, along with my rain jacket and some warm soup. My mom confirms the reality that I have lost about 10 positions in the standings and then says, “There goes another one,” as an additional female leaves the aid station in front of me. A harsh statement to some, but reality and I have to think my frustration is shared.
Nancy and Jeff:
Another community well prepared for a long night of runners and spectators with a beer tent, coffee, and fair food. They’ve done this before! They, too, know their role. The weather has gone from ominous to a raging thunder-and-lightning storm. The tent shakes and more waiting and watching as headlamps snake down yet another mountain toward the aid station.
Aliza and Brian report Aliza frozen in her tracks on the ridgeline as lightning raged and Brian claiming, “We’re gonna’ die!” Not getting zapped proved more important than the several places that slipped away as other runners passed by during the storm. Drowned rats–no other way to put it. A change of clothes and their heavy rain jackets, Aliza and Brian head back out into the storm and we head back to wait for our temporary home on wheels for the final leg of this journey–the finish line at Chamonix, France.
Mile 105 – Chamonix, France – Sunday, 12:01 a.m.
I have now lost physical and mental capabilities. I can grasp what is happening, but I seem to have no control over anything. My hips do not seem to be working, so running is impossible and so is any motion that requires me to step up. For a few minutes I think about turning back to the aid station in hopes that my mom is still there, but for some reason retreating seems like a harder option than the distance that lies ahead. As my cadence becomes slow to slower, I stumble over more and more frequently. At first I attribute it solely to physical fatigue, but then realize I am falling asleep. I task myself with little counting games or the singing of songs, but without fail my mind and world goes blank, and I find myself working to regain my balance. I consider calling my parents, but then struggle to formulate what I would say. I come up with something like: “Hi, I am okay. I am by a rock on the trail. I am going to sleep and really have no idea when I will wake up. I will either see you sometime tomorrow or maybe the day after. Don’t worry, I have enough mandatory gear to survive for a while.”
The literal walk to the finish is anticlimactic and perhaps a love-hate experience. Winding along the roads through Chamonix, it feels like the polar opposite from the start. It’s now so very quiet and calm. I walk across the line, venture through a gap in the metal barricades, and head directly to my mom. She is very congratulatory. She seems proud in my finishing, knowing that it was such a battle. I admit that all I want to do is not talk about it and that I really just need to cry. I had wanted to cry for numerous hours out of pain, frustration, and exhaustion, but as we walk to the car it doesn’t come. I think the weight of my disappointment is lightened just enough with the news that Jeff missed my finish as he was sound asleep in the car. (Yes, I find it funny.)
Nancy and Jeff:
The lonely, dark streets of Chamonix. Very few crews and even fewer sober spectators. The projected time on the UTMB website for the 11 miles from Vallorcine to Chamonix has Aliza at six hours. How is that possible? Do we wait or do we sleep? And where? Let’s have a glass of wine and figure it out. Well, it is possible and it does take her this long. Aliza and Brian arrive at around 5:30 a.m. to find Nancy wrapped in her blanket at the finish line and Jeff sleeping in the car. Next year we will have a little better idea of what our roles are and a new game plan! Watch out!
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
- Ultramarathon crews and supporters! Share your adventures and misadventures in crewing and supporting your runner in the comments section.
- Runners, have you ever compared notes with your crew like Aliza has done here to see how their experiences were similar or different from your own? What did you learn?