Greetings from Chamonix,
Thank you all for your support and indulgence for this incredible event I’m obsessed with. This was my 7th year in a row at the starting line and while it’s always exciting and hopeful, it doesn’t always end in a triumphant finish.
Many things went well during my 24+ hours on the course—a few things did not. Just being allowed to cover long distances on foot in the Alps is a gift—add in thousands of spectators (how the heck do they get to some of those places?) and multiple aid stations along the way—is heaven.
In previous years it’s been a mud fest with cold, wet mountain weather—this year was hot and dry until Saturday evening. We were warned of extreme heat and to take precaution with clothing choices and hydration. Of course, we were still required to carry mandatory cold weather gear—more on that later. Hard packed soil where there is usually mud and deep dust elsewhere was the norm. Ouch, ouch, sneeze!
The hour before the start is always incredible. Standing on the steps of the church with 2,500 runners along with families and friends in soaring temperatures, constant announcements in several languages, music and the ever present view that is Mont Blanc. Cameras, helicopters and drones add to the excitement. Oh. And don’t forget the dog poop. Sometimes the odors are more like the end of a race instead of the beginning.
It took 4 minutes to get to the starting line and another 10 before running my first step. The plan was to take it out easy—I did— and still managed to get to Les Houches a few minutes sooner than last year. My darling friend, Kaz, was there at the top of the bridge with a huge smile and lots of encouragement.
The ascent out of Les Houches has always been difficult for me, but it didn’t feel so overwhelming this time. I may have even managed to pass a few people on the way up. The important part of the climb is when the sun begins to set and the light over Mont Blanc changes to a gold, orange and red glow—breathtaking. Knowing this was probably my last time, I stopped to take in the majesty and might have even gotten a little teary.
Without the mud and huge puddles, the trail was much easier to navigate in the dark, but the hard packed dirt pounded up through the feet and into my body—just a little preview of future miles. While my time into St. Gervais wasn’t as fast as some years, I wasn’t worried and even managed to smile. In and out in 4 minutes and off to Les Contamines.
The cut off is tight for me and I’ve barely made it in past races. Not sure of my exact arrival, but I got there and back out less stressed and better prepared for what was to come. What makes some of these sections so difficult is the sheer number of people at all times. Trail width combined with thousands of people wearing packs, wielding sticks and trying to navigate obstacles makes it challenging to do your own pace.
This part of the race is kind of a hoot. There are some good runnable miles in the dark punctuated by hundreds of people lining the course, having picnics, playing music, drinking, dancing, cheering in multiple languages and in general helping runners get pumped up for the long ascent to La Balme, Col du Bonhomme, Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme before the heinous descent into Les Chapeaux.
Just before beginning the climb there is a beautiful church, Notre Dame de la Gorge on the right. I always slow to take a peek—it’s beautifully lit up and worth a look. There is a huge welcoming arch, hundreds of people cheering and an inviting bonfire. It was a little too warm this year—nobody huddled up to the fire in the heat even at midnight.
By the way. The blaring music heard while approaching Notre Dame de la Gorge has traditionally been American Country (bizarre in itself). This year it was electronic funk dance music and LOUD!
This climb starts on a granite surface—beautiful in daylight, but usually wet when I arrive at night. The dry footing seemed easier this year, but granite is granite—at least we are only walking and not pounding. Someone placed lit candles along the granite in large tins lining the first half-mile—nice touch.
This is a good time to mention a little trail runner drama. Nearly everyone carries hiking sticks and they can be dangerous—metal points flying everywhere. A few times I’ve reminded the runner in front of me to watch his sticks. We were on the gravel road on a slightly flat section and a guy came pushing though our group with poles thrashing about. He apparently hit a runner with them and the rest of us were treated to a heated tongue lashing in what sounded like angry Spanish. Just another night on the trail in the Alps.
It seems to take forever to get up to La Balme, but it’s a major aid station and especially when cold, the bonfire can suck you right into its warmth. Needless to say, no bonfire this year. Knowing it can be cooler farther up, I stopped to don my Patagonia Houndini lightweight shell—it was probably too warm, but stopping to remove clothing is distracting.
After a heavily salted bowl of soup and grabbing chunks of cheese and baguette, I headed up along with a thousand of my best friends. The large-rock strewn trail winds around and around into the star studded skies and you are never alone. In fact, it is the longest conga line of the race. Unless you are nimble footed and feeling extremely strong—you may walk along behind the same people for long periods of time—slowing when everyone else does. It can be frustrating, but it can also be fun to pick people off one by one.
Up ahead, as far as the eye can see is the glow of head torches. As Kaz aptly describes it, “Angels ascending to the heavens.” If you look over your shoulder on a turn, you can see miles of bobbing head torches below reminding you you’re not last!
Les Chapieux rests at 31 miles and is another large aid station. It’s tented, warm and welcoming—just the place to grab food and get out while hundreds of runners sit to eat, fiddle with clothing and sleep. I’ve learned to stay out of that trap. It’s also a mandatory gear check and the tables were full of packs being opened and inspected. Magically, as I walked up to a table, the staff waved me and the next two runners on! Sweeeeeeeet.
The course is paved for awhile leading out and it’s almost welcome. The head torch isn’t needed—the headphones are. The sound of tired runners dragging and scraping metal tipped hiking sticks on pavement can be annoying. Eric Clapton’s “Layla” helps a lot.
At the top of Col de las Seigne a new section was introduced in 2015. It broke me then and it broke me again. It starts by going straight up on a long wet grass slope cut into high steps. There is still melting snow up there and water is running over your feet causing stepping up and sliding back down punctuated by expletives in dozens of languages. That’s the easy part. As it continues to ascend you find yourself in a giant rock slide where nothing is stable. A huge boulder may move under your feet as easily as a pebble. Everything is shifting and making noise coupled with grunts and groans from runners.
There is really no discernible trail and we spread out each picking his or her own line as we continue to climb. The thought is that when you get to the top of Col des Pyramides Calcaires the descent will be a relief. It’s not. It’s the same on the decent only now you are picking your way down on moving boulders with the sound of sliding rocks above you.
That little detour is only about 3 miles, but it sucks the energy right out of me. Since I was worried about making the cut off at Lac Combal at 10:00 a.m., the pleasure of arriving at 9:19 with a little time to re-group helped a lot.
Getting to Courmayeur at 50 miles (my watch indicated 53) with only 30 minutes to spare was scary. Thank goodness Kaz was there to help me dig through my bags and keep me focused. I planned to change into a clean shirt, re-tape my feet and clean up a bit. I only had time to change my shoes, switch out head-torch batteries, dump my trash, refill bottles and get going again.
Not eating solid food then was probably the beginning of the end. It’s the second year in a row I didn’t have time to sit and eat properly—perhaps I should run faster. I had plenty of race food calories, but I don’t do well with just sugar based products. It’s now mid-day—hotter than any previous year and we’re leaving Courmayeur to climb to Refuge Bertone. I was thrilled to be given the chance to try it again and it went well.
The carnage was visible everywhere. There are usually a few racers who are taking breaks on the way up. This was different—dozens of bodies lying in the dirt, on rocks, huddled under bushes and doing that thing runners do—emptying stomachs. Believe it or not, I didn’t sit down a single time and stopped less than ever before—I was on a mission to get to the Refuge to top off my fizzy water.
While I knew there was only a slim chance I’d make the cut off at Arnuva, I ran as much as possible. Along the way I met up with a friend of Tim Weber’s, Brent, and we ran together for awhile. He, too, was on a mission and I know he made it to Arnuva—not sure after that.
About two miles out I sent a text to Kaz that there was no way I could make it down in time. She told me to keep going and see what happens. For some reason a little energy kicked in and I ran as fast as I could down the trail. The cut off was at 18:15—I arrived at 18:15! The staff said if I hurried and got out of the aid station I could continue (along with a few others).
I refilled my bottles and headed back out with only 4 hours to climb Grand Col Ferret and get to La Fouly 9 miles away. Again, no time for solid food. At the base of Grand Col Ferret just out of the aid station I pulled out my jacket, hat and gloves in preparation and started up the mountain. It was 15 minutes up that my heart rate spiked, the strength drained from my legs and I came to a complete halt. Perhaps solid food may have helped. Perhaps better specific training. Perhaps a bit more strength of will.
At just that moment I looked up the trail to see several runners I’d been around for hours dejectedly heading back down. They had all had the same experience. They gave it everything to make the cut-off and tried to keep moving, but for many reasons knew it wasn’t going to happen. One girl from Serbia was very upset and I spent some time consoling her. It was her first time and stopping was hurting her soul. Abandoning UTMB is never easy, but it happens.
We turned in our bibs, watched as the next 50ish runners came in missing the cut-off then walked towards the small shuttles back to Courmayeur 40 minutes away. Nothing like a packed shuttle filled with dirty, smelly dejected runners, right? Most of us immediately fell asleep.
We were dropped off in the parking lot of the Sports Center where the first large 60 person coach to Chamonix was filled quickly. We didn’t make that one. It was comical to see the rest of us lying around in the middle of a paved parking lot—either sleeping or texting.
Just before the next bus arrived 45 minutes later the skies filled with ominous clouds and rolling thunder. Uh, oh. It was going to get nasty in the mountains. We finally got onto the bus, had to wait a long time to get into the tunnel and by the time we arrived in Chamonix at 22hr there was a full-on thunderstorm with heavy rains. It’s a good thing we all had our foul weather gear we had carried for 24 hours.
I guess those of us who had to abandon may have dodged a bullet. It was disappointing, but we were headed to dry beds instead of being at the top of Grand col Ferret.
Through everything the views were stunning, the grit and determination of runners along the way and the volunteers and spectators never cease to amaze me. While I may never choose to do UTMB again, I hope to participate in another way—it’s a truly magical place.
I’m on my way to the finish line to cheer on the brave and hearty runners who stuck it out to make it back to Chamonix and will probably get a little teary eyed again.
Editor’s Note: Georganna Quarles won first in the women’s 60-69 group at the 2014 UTMB. Of 6 starters in the group, she was the only one to finish. Photo below (which she hadn’t seen until I found it on the internet :)), of Georganna on the podium, was used with permission from Pointlenana’s blog