30 August 2015


The Lottery

UTMB had been on my bucket list pretty much as soon as I discovered an interest in ultra marathons and trail running a just short five years ago. What started as a dream to once return to the region I had visited so many times as a young boy during regular annual family trips to the Alps turned into reality almost by accident.

Those family trips were some of my favorite memories growing up. During these trips, everything was perfect and who doesn’t want to recreate or relive some of their favorite memories? My actual return to the Alps for the first time in over 30 years happened kind of by accident. I had entered the Western States 100 lottery with high hopes of winning one of the coveted slots that allowed a runner to enter the oldest 100 mile ultra marathon in the United States and the most famous ultra marathon in the US and possibly the world. However, my hopes were shattered when the lottery results unfolded. I was hoping for the lucky ticket until the last name and final WS entry was drawn live online, but it just wasn’t meant to be. So when I realized that WS was not in my immediate future, I wanted to find another epic adventure to fill this “void”. I realized that not only was the UTMB lottery about to open, but I actually had the necessary qualifying races and points needed to enter the lottery.

Having experienced the crushing feeling of not making the lottery (WS100), my expectations were fairly low once I entered the lottery, but that didn’t keep me from feverishly awaiting the official lottery drawing that took place in Paris, France and watching the results online. When I saw my name on the tentative entry list, I was excited beyond words. That quickly turned into “What have I done?”. That lasted about a day and after announcing to the world on Facebook, how else, that I got in to UTMB, I immediately started the logistical planning.

The Planning

How do you prepare for an epic event that challenges its participants with 105 miles of technical alpine terrain and 32,000ft of elevation gain? I’m German and for once, one of the commonly perceived stereotypes came in handy. Yes, we like to plan everything in exact detail. Thanks to spreadsheets, I was quickly deeply immersed in gear planning and the creation of race specific training plans. The lighter the gear the better, the more elevation gain on a training run the better. That sums up my initial planning very very accurately. Later, I revised the spreadsheets to make sure my gear wasn’t just light, but that it would meet and hopefully exceed its purpose. On the training schedule, I slightly reduced my scheduled elevation gain to more realistic and reasonable levels after talking to some experienced ultra runners, whom I respect greatly (you know who you are;-).

Slowly but surely, my training schedule took shape. As I tried out different gear options in some of the more challenging trail races in the Southeast to get ready for UTMB, namely the Georgia Death Race 68 Miler, the Cruel Jewel 50 Miler and the H9 Marathon, my gear list continued to change. Not only did I test my gear, I meticulously weighted every single mandatory and optional piece of gear I expected to use and carry during UTMB with a food scale. The results of this effort can be seen in the image below, but here are some of the more important lessons I learned.

First, I consider trekking poles an absolute necessity for UTMB. However, it is just as important to actually training with them, so you not only get the greatest benefit from them, but you also avoid impaling your fellow competitors during the event, which is a definite plus.

Second, I cannot overstate the importance of keeping your pack as light as possible. However, just as important is the fact that your gear must be able to really protect you from the elements, which can and will be quite harsh, be it extreme heat, extreme cold or extreme rain, all of which can end your race, IF you do not have the proper gear to deal with these elements.

Luckily, my training races dished out two of those extremes, extreme heat and extreme rain. I was spared the extreme cold and thankfully, this year’s UTMB race only delivered extreme heat (by European standards). As a result, my gear testing in training prepped me for everything I encountered during the race, well, almost everything.

The Training

As things usually go, I had the perfect training plan all mapped out in a massive spreadsheet. 6 months slowly building to massive mileage and massive amounts of climbing, all divvied up in nice 3 week blocks with seriously challenging training races sprinkled throughout. Then reality set in. A serious ankle injury during a 50K in February forced me to back off and stop running completely for multiple 3 week blocks at a time as the issue kept coming back. The result, my pace went south and I felt I’d lost the endurance I’d built over the past 12 months almost completely. It seemed like I was starting from scratch and already behind schedule.

I adjust and readjusted my training schedule to cope with the injury, starting over multiple times. I decided to not worry about weekly mileage, but instead to solely focus on elevation gain. UTMB is know for its massive and unrelenting climbs and descends, so running big mileage might not be as important as I initially thought. It seemed way more important to try to replicate steep climbing and steep descends. In addition to the training races I had lined up I reached out to another ultra runner, Rob Youngren, who was getting ready for Barkley and Hardrock. He’d had vast experience in getting ready for ridiculous ultras, so I figured it wouldn’t hurt to reach out to him to learn how he was getting ready. Thankfully, he was kind enough to let me tag along for some of his training sessions. Maybe thankfully is the wrong word, after all, I ended up doing two self-supported 50Ks with 11,000-12,000ft of climbing each, the Dismal 50K and the Sublet Point Vertical 2 Mile Challenge. If you are runner in the Huntsville, AL area, you know that words other than thankful would probably be more appropriate

On July 1, I also started an exciting new professional career, which understandably took some of my focus from my training. But it also had a positive impact on my preparation. I had to visit my corporate headquarters in Switzerland 3 weeks prior to the UTMB, which actually allowed me to train and acclimate just a little in the Swiss alps on the weekends before heading to France for the big event.

The Week Of The Race

The race started on Friday evening at 6PM. On Monday, I drove to Geneva, Switzerland to pick up my wife at the airport on Tuesday morning. She took 2 weeks of unpaid leave to crew me at UTMB and finally arrived from the US on Tuesday morning after a 4 hour delay. We took a rental car to make the 60 minute drive to Chamonix, France, the location for the start and finish of the UTMB and 4 other epic events during this last week in August.

After 40 minutes of driving surrounded by mountains, I noticed a snow capped mountain range among the otherwise green mountain ranges that slowly kept getting larger and larger. I turned to my wife, “Is that Mont Blanc?”. Her reply “You do know why it is called Mont Blanc, right baby, like white mountain?”. Duh!

20 minutes later we arrived just outside Chamonix at our little hotel at the foot of Mont-Blanc. To say I was slightly intimidated as I was looking at this mountain with a prominence of 16,000ft would be a huge understatement. I actually turned to my wife and said “I don’t think I can do this!”. This mountain was awe-inspiring and frightening all at once.

Another great resource during my time leading up this this event was another ultra friend I met a year earlier while crewing my buddy Cary Long during his first 100 mile adventure at the Thunder Rock 100. Joel Meredith had already run UTMB a couple of times and his insight into the course along with gear advice was invaluable leading into the race. On top of that, this guy actually flew to Chamonix just to show me around the place. Well, not really, but he did happen to be in Chamonix during race week and kindly agreed on Tuesday afternoon to show me the final 8K of the race course after “running” the Vertikal K race course to get there. While that vertical K was sketchy to say the least, being able to run the final 8k of the actual race course really put my mind at ease. I kept visualizing coming down this final descend to the finish. It would be a great mental tool for me during the race.

On Wednesday morning, my wife and I headed into town to check out the race expo and the local stores. This town is a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts and features just about every outdoor brand imaginable. I also wanted to pick up my race packet to get that out of the way as soon as possible. When we arrived at the local sports complex that hosted the check in, we were greeted by a line at least a mile long fully exposed in the afternoon sun with barely any shade. Oh good, I thought, I get to stand in the hot sun for hours before the race even starts Once we actually made it inside the gym, things went fairly smoothly and efficiently. You could tell they’d done this a few times, but the sheer number of participants just made this a time-consuming endeavor. However, the atmosphere more than made you forget the wait. Yes I was nervous as hell, but there was definitely excitement in the air.

After verifying that I had the appropriate rain jacket and cell phone, I received my race number along with a tech shirt and a yellow plastic bag to be used as my drop bag for the Courmayeur, Italy checkpoint just short of half way through the race. I would pack this bag along with my running pack once we got back to the hotel so I could try to relax. While I did an easy jog with my wife on Wednesday morning, I had no plans to do any more running until race start.

The race expo provided some great personal moments for me as well. As we walked into Chamonix, a fellow runner and friend from Denmark, whom I had met 2 years earlier at a trail race in Alabama (Mt. Cheaha 50K) walked up behind us. Michael Brodsted was here to run the CCC 100K race the same day as I was running UTMB. Later, I would run into Sean Meissner, another ultra runner extraordinaire, whom I'd met a few years earlier at the Desert RATS 148 Mile race in Utah/Colorado, which he crushed, of course, and who also happened to be on Team Nuun.

I also had the opportunity to chat with Scott Jurek, a true ultra running legend, after bumping into him at the Brooks expo stand. He truly is a very personable individual and an all around class act. His words did encourage me to press on when the going got tough out there.

The Race

I had had butterflies in my stomach all week and waking up at 8AM on race day meant that it would last another 10 hours until I actually got to release those butterflies onto the race course. It also meant that in addition to spending likely two days and two nights out there I had already been awake for to extra hours prior to race start. In fact, the "butterflies" caused me to take an immodium just to be safe. 

My wife had been a trooper throughout all of the preparations, but she was a little nervous as well. Neither one of us had any idea of how the shuttle service would work and how easy it would be for her to get from check point to check point. As it turned out, while everything seemed to be extremely organized for us runners, the shuttle service wasn’t quite as sophisticated and accurate. As a result, my wife slept maybe 30 minutes more than me, which meant she slept 30 minutes in the 50 hours from 8AM on race morning until I crossed the finish line Sunday morning.

We arrived in town on one of the regular buses about 2 hours prior to race start, so I could drop of my drop bag. The location fo drop bag drop offs was another indicator that race organizers had done this a few times before. Rows and rows of drop bags lined the ground, meticulously sorted, 0-100, 101-200, etc. It was an impressive sight. We made it to the start of the race an hour before the actual start, plenty of time to soak in the moment and to realize the enormity of the adventure that was about to unfold.

2600 runners and their supporters started to fill the plaza in front of St. Michel church in the center of Chamonix. It was getting crowded quickly and most of us tried to stay relaxed by sitting down on the ground and resting our bodies as much as possible. I started taking pictures as more and more runners filled the plaza. The organizers and announcers started to get the crowd going, music was blasting from the speakers and the excitement and noise level were growing by the minute. Time for some last minute photos and videos to capture the moment.

When it was finally time to go after the announcer counted us down to the start, the front of the pack took off like we were running a 10K race. I made sure to line up in the middle of the crowd to ensure I wasn’t going out too fast. As it turned out, I lined up just were I needed to be as my final finish position correlated pretty close to were I ran for most of the two days.

Having seen runners dropping their trekking poles and having them trampled and destroyed right at the start, I decided to leave mine securely strapped to my pack for the first 20 miles or so. Coincidentally, these were also the most runnable miles of the entire race course. In fact, they were the only runnable miles. Well, there were a couple of runnable miles at the end of the race, too.

I remember being frustrated very early on as the train of runners continued to be tightly packed around you without much room to pass anyone without risking injury to yourself (by sliding of the side of a mountain or being poked by trekking poles) or fellow runners (tripping them up). Eventually, I just went with it and decided to just stay within a "safe zone" without worrying about my pace. I do remember that I was basically still surrounded by runners 50 miles into the race. The field would stretch here and there and you would have moments of solitude, but as soon as the terrain got extremely challenging you would catch up to other runners and others would catch up to you. I didn't mind it, I was too busy taking in the surroundings.

The race course mainly runs along a trail system aptly named the Tour du Mont-Blanc as it circumvents the Mont-Blanc massif, providing runners with a constant view of the glacier. In fact, I had never taken so many pcitures during a race before. No matter when I looked up to catch a glimpse of my amazing surroundings, Mont-Blanc was there to give me yet another unbelievable picturesque backdrop. I kept pinching myself, it was that amazing.

I continued to run very relaxed and as I passed other runners and others passed me, I met five other runners from the US and we'd end up chatting for a while before continuing with our own races. Most of the time, I would run on my own. I knew I would only see my wife and crew a total of 5 times during the entire duration of the race, so these moments would prove extremely important to me, especially from a psychological perspective.

I'm pretty sure it was dark by the time I completed the first 30K distance and rolled into Les Contamines aid station. I was so happy to see my wife there. She was waiting in the tent where runners were allowed to meet their crew for assistance. She was awesome, filling up my bottles, getting me food and drink and just making sure I had everything I need. I took a breather, we talked for a while as I was drinking a cup of soup and scarfed down a couple of pieces of baguette with fresh salami and cheese. That would be my main fuel for most of the race along with a few pieces of banana here and there.

My wife helped me put on my pack again and sent me on my way. I was actually sad to go, since I knew I would not see her until the next day, when I hoped to arrive in Courmayeur, Italy 79k into the race some time before noon. But knowing that she would be there waiting for me also helped me to push on when I hit a couple of low moments here and there. Speaking of low points, I experienced some serious hallucinations starting the first night already. That made me nervous about what to expect the second night out there.

I'm not sure if I remember correctly, but I think I arrived in Courmayeur two hours ahead of my conservative time schedule and my wife was scolding me. Well not really, but she reminded me to stay conservative and not push too hard. Luckily, I was feeling great. I knew it was just a matter of time when my pace would slow significantly, especially the second night out there. Once again, my wife was there greeting me and lifting me up. She continued to take care of me. This time, I did a complete clothes change including shoes. I also needed to have a blister worked on for the first time in years. Nothing in my training could prepare me for the prolonged steep descents I experienced throughout the race.

After a longer break in Courmayeur it was time to head out and begin yet another major climb. In reality, every aid station was followed by a major climb. I don't recall ever exiting an aid station where the sign showed less than 3000ft of climbing and 6-10 miles distance to the next check point. But it wasn't intimidating, I just knew what I had to do to get to the next checkpoint. This had always been my strategy at previous races anyway, just go from aid station to aid station, never look at the big picture or total distance remaining. That approach worked here as well.

As the day continued and before I would meet my wife again at Champex-Lac at kilometer 124, I met a couple of Brits that I would continue to run with for the remainder of the race. After running for nearly two days, it was nice to keep your mind occupied when you encounter some of the most ridiculously steep and sustained climbs of your life...ever. But even the most challenging climbs were made more bearable because of where I was. During the day, you would have amazing vistas at every turn and at night, you would see miles and miles of headlamps snaking their way up massive mountains in front of you and giving you the illusion of miles of lit highways behind you.

The first night, w were treated to a full moon and the second night was just as bright. It allowed my to literally turn off my headlamp for prolonged periods of time. There is nothing more beautiful than running around Mont-Blanc at night and seeing the snow capped peaks without eh need for headlamps, all of it glowing in natural moonlight.

The second night proved to be much tougher for me than the first. My hallucinations had become more serious, though I was always able to tell that they were indeed hallucinations. I just wasn't able to turn them off no matter how much I told myself they weren't real. My blister had also multiplied from one to five. To allow myself to continue with less pain, I had them drained and taped at the last aid station with crew access. This meant that I would have to possibly run the remainder of the race by myself, since I had to wait on the medics to finish up with other runners before they could tend to my blisters. The Brits continued on their way and when the medics finished up with me and I was ready to continue, they were about 15-20 minutes ahead of me.

I was a little worried about getting back out there on my own. There was one mayor climb remaining and my hallucinations had gotten worse. Anya calmed me down and that helped. I decided to put on some warmer clothes, hat, gloves and long sleeve wool top before heading back out. I knew my body had cooled off a little due to the longer than usual stay at this check point and I also expected to move a lot slower for a while. I headed back out of Vallorcine at kilometer 150 in good spirits after getting a pep talk from my wife and I was determined to make it to the finish, since I knew that would be the next time for me to see her:-)

I generally kept to myself in aid stations, so I didn't really notice the carnage that had taken place over the past 36 or so hours, but my wife shared some crazy stories with me, runners already dropping at 30k due to heat and exhaustion. I vividly remember her reminder "This is not hot, Alabama is hot, this is not hot. You've been running in a lot worse all year." These reminders really helped whenever my confidence sank a little here and there.

I took off my extra layers just a few minutes after leaving Vallorcine and noticed a couple of runners sitting on the side of the trail or standing in the middle of the trail, motionless. At first, I assumed they were just more hallucinations, so I would talk to them to see if they were even real. Short grunts confirmed they were real. I moved on and as I continued I had to fight sleep deprivation and hallucinations. Things were getting difficult and then I got to see the final major climb. Who am I kidding, every climb in this race is a mayor climb, but this one was straight up, 3000ft, often using your hands to pull up and over large boulders and makeshift stairs. I don't know if there was a trail, it just seemed like a never-ending zigzag rock staircase, not really switchbacks, and a cliff to one side the entire climb. It did scare the crap out of me, but there was a benefit with that. I moved very quickly just to get away from that cliff. As a result, as I crested the cliff I caught up to my British running buddies. From hereon out, we ran together.

As day broke, we all realized that we were in the final stretch. I also knew I was about to approach the final 10K of the race. One more checkpoint and one more aid station and we would start the final decent into the town of Chamonix and to the finish line. My feet were beat up and I tripped more times than I could count on that final 5K, but I was ready to cross the finish line. Not to be done, just to be called a finisher of this amazing event. I vowed never to run this race again as we descended to the finish line. Yet, just minuted after I finished, I made plans to enter the lottery yet again. Yes, it is a once in a lifetime experience and yes, you will only experience it for the first time once, but there is no other place in the world where you will feel as connected to nature and to fellow mountain runners as you do in Chamonix and if there is a chance to go back, I have to take it.

This race also resulted in a chance meeting with the editor-in-chief of Competitor magazine Brian Metzler during the UTMB expo, who ended up interviewing me for this article. I am a little embarrassed and a little proud of my very first official interview as an ultra runner.

A huge and special thanks to my amazing wife, without whom I would have never been able to experience and finish this amazing adventure. She lifted my spirits when needed, provided motivation when needed, made sure I at and drank when needed and just gave me a reason to continue to the next meting spot when I wasn't sure I could physically do it. Thank you baby, I hope I can do the same for you when the time comes.

Below is a short clip from the race:

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