The best thing about an ultra is all that one is forced to learned. This was especially true at the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc.
After several years of training and a heavy 2012 racing season aimed squarely at UTMB, with the help of Falcon Drilling and Queensway Auto World I found myself in Europe running the alps at altitude. As someone who runs for the love of it, it’s an excellent place to enjoy technical mountain trails. One evening while running from Les Houches over a pass to Saint Gervais, I was on a small mountain trail and I found myself in the middle of now where at a cheese store. Where in the world but the french alps would you find a homemade cheese store on a narrow hiking trail?
Mont Blanc reminds me of the Canadian Rockies, perhaps like Mount Sir Alexander Mackenzie. However, in every pass, valley, ledge and slope there are houses, restaurants and bars. Additionally, there is a 12 km tunnel under the mountain and a distinctive lack of mosquitoes.
I do have some experience running North American ultra’s. There is amazing comradeship, help, politeness and trail etiquette. This changes a bit as you run closer to the front. Let me tell you, Europe is very different. Not necessarily a bad thing, just different.
In order for my crew to make it to the first two aid stations, they dropped me off in Chamonix at the race start about an hour and a half early. I sat very close to the start and watched runners bully there way to the front for spots. 2600 runners lined up. No one spoke or made eye contact. The fellow next to me urinated in a pop bottle down his pants so as not to lose his starting place (yes – I took a picture, after all this is France). He casually tried to drop it but it sprayed over some other runners. I’m positive someone defecated in their pants.
The 168 km/9600 meter gain race had been changed to a 104 km/6000 meter gain race due to severe weather above 1800 meters. Everything changed. This wouldn’t be a slog, this was going to be fast and furious. Everyone new it and prepared.
Then something magical happened. The new winner of the CCC race set a course record and crossed the finish line at our start, a couple minutes before the UTMB. The crowd gelled and cheered him in.
And instantly the crowd went back to business. As the countdown neared, I took a video, trying to capture some of the energy.
And then – we were off, fighting to stay vertical, runners pushing and jostling for position. Cameramen moved backwards on roller blades, people cheered and cowbells ringing.. Runners were going down left and right. I tried to avoid sharp pole points and I was amazed by the thousands cheering. I ran for several kilometers not able to see anything but cheering spectators and runners front and back trying all their tactics.
Soon I passed the aid station in Les Houches, cheered on by Karen Rutherford. We turned off the road and started the climb up the mountain. I had wondered why everyone had poles, especially on the modified shorted course. And then I understood. These weren’t for climbing – they were for tactics. Placed crossways across single track, the pursuing runner could not pass. Runners paired up side by side and double poled to not let anyone pass.
On the single track, no one gave trail for oncoming passing runners.
The depth of field was amazing. Efficiency and capability was everywhere. I watched everyone navigate the trail with expert precision. The runners here were serious. No giving way or being nice. It was everyone for themselves and every trick they could think of to keep the runner behind in his place – and that didn’t mean by running faster.
Things were moving very fast. My watched averaged 4 minute 30 seconds/km almost 10 km’s in but contrary to usual, I played it smart. I held back – I had a long way to go. I held my heart rate under 90% ready for most of the front runners to burn out or drop. I would not push the beginning of this race. I would make my move later.
I went over the first mountain, playing it smart. I climbed slow and downhilled fast in the dark making some moves past other runners in the dark, fog and rain. I learned a new trick – come up from behind using the light of the runner ahead and then pass turning on my light. It worked in the steady stream of rain.
The trail was steep, muddy, narrowing and technical but I was quickly running the streets of St Gervais. Marja-Lisa directed me into the aid station and Chantal handed me gels and helped with a quick sock change. I very quickly left the town and into the pastures moving up the valley. My reserved climbing payed off and I made moves past runners. We soon hit the single track in a steep cut along the river. Every once in a while, we would hit heavy fog patches in the ever increasing rain.
I woke up shivering next to the river in the dark. After a few minutes of orientating, I walked the overhanging bank. It took me a bit but I found a tree that went down the ten foot bank and then went about forty feet up a scree slope back to the trail. I had some pretty good cuts on the hip and elbow and a goose egg on the head. My coat and shorts were shreds. Muddy and bleeding, I forced myself to warm up by limping up the trail. Strange – I never slip on that kind of trail.
I wasn’t sure how much time I had lost but the runners had thickened. I made my way slowly, in pain, to the absolute insanity of a French run, 2600 runner aid station. I felt like I was shopping in an over-packed Gap store in the middle of the night.The techno blared.
My crew knew before me. I was out but I couldn’t admit it. I had come this far and I did not want to stop. I was over a third done a race that I had run over ten thousand kilometers training for. I had an excellent position and I had played it smart. I was cut, bruised and my hip barely let me walk. My memories of the future didn’t have this scene.
I swore. I swore again. Then I smiled and I laughed it off.
I don’t suppose everyone can say they fell down a cliff in the streaming rain of the night in the French Alps while running the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc.
Until next time….
My UTMB crew…