Let’s get this part out of the way: For the third year in a row the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc was altered from its original course. Snow and wind on the high mountain passes were deemed unsafe for the 2,000+ race participants planning on running the tenth edition of the event. The morning of the race, organizers held a press conference and declared that instead of crossing through three countries over 168 kilometers with close to 32,000 feet of climbing, this course would stay entirely in France within the confines of the Chamonix Valley, covering close to 110 kilometers and climbing over 18,000 feet. along the way. The race would still start on Friday evening, which meant running almost exclusively at night. In the rain, wind, and snow. Ultimately, and surprisingly, upon the course change, only 20 people of the 2,000+ chose not to toe the start line.
OK. So moving on. I came to Chamonix for the second year in a row to run around Mont Blanc on the original course of the UTMB. Oops. (See above.) Luckily, I also came to Chamonix to spend time with my sister Rachel, who was crewing for me; eat lots of pastries, cheese and sausage; and connect with friends I see only a couple times of year within the mountain running community. In these realms, I succeeded. Though the course had changed, the espressos, gelato, croissants, and incredible people had not. I was still mesmerized each time the Mont Blanc skyline would show its beauty from behind the clouds. I still met incredible people and made connections with world class athletes. In fact, the buzz around Chamonix was at an even higher frequency (hard to believe, I know) than years past due to the big push to celebrate the tenth year of this incredible event.
In this vein, I was fortunate to share dinner with fellow Americanos Krissy Moehl, Luke Nelson, Topher Gaylord and others the night before the race. Krissy painted my toenails for good luck while we all engaged in one of my favorite pre-UTMB rituals; meticulously discussing our required gear and looking for ways to shave fractions of an ounce off our packs while eating copious amounts of dark chocolate! Irony enter stage left.
The morning of the race, which was when we learned of the course change, came with its own frantic-ness, frustrations, and anxiety. It took time to make the mental shift and to focus on a course we would not learn details about until three hours before the race. I respect a few top athletes who decided not to race due to the change, but I had trained for this event and was prepared for it regardless of the changes made.
Fast forward to that evening. All day I put in a solid European diet taper, coming off the high volume of espresso, Nutella, and Perrier I had been consuming the few days prior to the race. Many of The North Face athletes met in the hotel lobby and took some photos before walking in solidarity to the race start, which would be a challenge to squeeze our way through the tight packed crowds on the narrow streets. I worked hard to wriggle my way to the front until there was nothing between me and the starting tape. I learned the lesson last year that it is better to be at the front and run the first mile like a bat out of hell, than to be stuck somewhere in the middle being elbowed, stepped on, and stabbed with trekking poles. I could start this race ten more times and I am not sure I will ever get used to the energy of the moment. The Music, the cameras in your face, the thousands of fans cheering mixed with the thousands of runners and their combined potential energy behind you. It’s a unique and slightly anxious feeling. Amidst the chaos I shared the normal “good lucks,” “have funs,” and “run fasts” with the usual suspects. Then we became quiet as the music turned up and the countdown ensued. It felt like a collective heartbeat of the crowd. 10, 9, 8, and on, and on….
As expected, the race went out FAST. We were out of Chamonix in the blink of an eye and entering into Les Houches at 7k before the adrenaline of the start finally wore off. This is when we encountered our first climb and I was left in my own head to remind myself that this race would be 10 hours shorter than the one I had visualized while training all summer long. When confronted with the question of powerhiking a steep climb versus running it I had to remind myself to run a “100k pace.” Though I had never raced the distance before, it was obvious that I should be going hard!
For 11+ hours, due to the darkness and thick fog, my feet slopping along the trail illuminated by my headlamp was my only view for the race. It was difficult to gauge the length of each climb and decent and even harder to tell the degree of incline and decline at times due to thick fog. I felt relegated to running by brail. Literally being forced into the moment of each step and foot fall. It required a sense of awareness and presence in the moment I found to be quite cathartic. I suddenly was forced out of my own head. My doubts about my strength, my frustration in the course change, my discomfort of being cold, wet and covered in mud. All of this was put on the back burner to choosing a solid foot placement and matching my effort with the immediate trail in front of me.
Though I had made the choice to race, I feel I hadn’t truly refocused my commitment until sometime after leaving Les Contamines at 30k. We climbed into the rain, and then the snow. We clambered over slick rocks and cascaded down muddy pastures with cows as our only witnesses. My headlamp faltered and flickered in the rain and I was forced to use my back up which I carried in my hand the rest of the course. Instead of getting frustrated with the technical difficulties and the mess of a trail, I decided to just let it all go and run as well as I could in the moment. Slowly but surely my focus became more sharp, and my legs felt more solid and strong.
By the time I had entered into Les Contamines for the second time at 54k I felt as if the race had just begun. As a high school cross country coach, I’ve screamed the words “how many can you get?!” to my kids countless times. We take pride in our program in having a strong finish and our best runners are doing the passing and not being passed in the tail end of their races. Whoever finishes strong and passes the most runners gets major bragging rights. I repeated this mantra in my head leaving Les Contamines with 50k of the course and 14 guys between me and the finish line, this became my mantra.
The first half of the race I passed runners on all of the climbs, though they would blow by me on the descents. I felt confident that I could climb strong all the way to the finish line, but I knew I had to, at the very least, hold my ground on the descents. The game plan was for an increasingly strong effort until Les Houches (70k) when I would finally allow myself to run with reckless abandon, trying to find that edge of blowing up the last 30k. With the plan in motion I began passing more racers, gaining strength along the way.
After Les Houches, I stuck to my aforementioned “reckless abandon” plan and was able to pull in a few more competitors over the course of two major climbs and descents before reaching Argentiere, the last aid station of the course. How many can you get? How many can you get?!
Charging into the last aid station at Argentiere (93k) I was told that fourth place was just in front of me and that third place was 10 minutes ahead. I knew it was a long shot for a podium, but I left the last aid station completely determined to see what I had that last 10k. If I moved up in position, great, otherwise I would be 100% content to finish knowing I gave my best effort.
Not long from Argentiere I caught and passed Carlos Sa of Portugal. He must be the fourth place guy, I thought. He was moving well still, but as I passed I ran even harder, trying my hardest not to allow him to go with me. I focused on forward progress and only after some time, looked back and could not see his headlamp moving through the night. With what I heard to be a 10-minute lead, third place, I assumed, was out of reach.
Finally, I saw the lights of Chamonix and pressed even harder. My shoes slapping through mud, then gravel, and finally pavement as I entered into town. A quarter mile from the finish I saw, another member of my crew, Dakota Jones as he handed me the Montana flag Mike Wolfe had given me before flying to Europe. Dakota briefly mentioned something about third place and I thought he made a mistake. I was fourth right? Regardless, I savored the moment at the finish line, holding the flag, hugging my sister, and waving to the crowd and media. Amidst it all, I turned to Rachel and asked, “What place was I in?” “Third” she said through teary eyes. They had mistakenly (and fortunately) told me I was in fifth, not fourth at Argentiere!
So with the flag in my hands and the sun rising over Chamonix, and my sister at my side, I let out a the loudest “Whoooooo-eeeeeee!” I could muster. After being in 20th place around 35k into a 100k race, I had just podium-ed at UTMB!
In the end, I understand the asterisk that goes along with the 2012 edition of UTMB. Who knows how the race would have unfolded on the true course under different conditions. The wet cold night 100k catered to no one’s strengths. This I understand. But my UTMB experience is not tarnished. The training I put in the months leading up to the race were some of the most aesthetic, challenging, and rewarding days in the mountains of my life. I climbed snowy peaks, jumped into alpine lakes, scrambled technical ridgelines, and covered hundreds of miles of trail with friends – all in preparation for this event. And when race day came, I gave my best effort, against that particular course, against my fellow competitors. I shared the experience with my sister. I ate too much gelato and drank too much espresso. I made new friends and strengthened existing relationships. Podium spot or not, success or failure, this is what I came to Chamonix to do, and these are the reasons why I run.