Race Report - 2018 Trail Verbier St-Bernard X-Alpine 111K (DNF)

7/08/2018 02:56:00 PM


In short, this race did not at all go as planned, resulting in my first international DNF (Did Not Finish). I did not make that decision lightly. In fact, I spent 20k of walking to make up my mind. Even though I had plenty of time to finish the race, even at a walking pace, I had no desire to do so just to get a finish. Sometimes, finishing an ultra isn't everything. However, finishing this race or not, it should be on everyone's bucket list. This race is unequalled in both its beautiful and in its difficulty. Don't believe me? Check out the photos here and the elevation profile on their website.
I was on a business trip to Ireland and Switzerland and had heard about this race from our local run bum, Sean Blanton, who had toed the line of this race a few times before and was going to do it again this year. I had seen only one of his pics in a post from last year's race and that sold me, I had to do it.
I found a great deal on a hotel in the center of the town of Verbier, which turned out to be overlooking the actual race start/finish area for the X-Alpine race, the 111K edition of the Trail Verbier St. Bernard mountain races, the race I had signed up for. It featured nearly 30,000 feet of vertical gain in the alps between Switzerland and Italy. In fact, runners enter Italy and the town of La Fouly around 50K before returning to Switzerland via the St. Bernard Pass.
I arrived in Verbier after a 5 hour train ride on Friday afternoon. The final leg of my trip included a 10 minute cable car ride to Verbier, which is faster than taking the bus ride up an endless serpentine road to Verbier. Race registration and bib pickup took place in Le Chable, which was at the bottom of the mountain. I took the cable car back down to get my race number and to check out the small expo they had set up.
I spotted Victor, Sean and Jason, all local Eastcoast US runners as I got out of the cable car. We picked up our bibs and headed back to our respective hotels. The plan was to meet for an early dinner, since Sean and I had decided to take the 1AM early race start to hopefully give ourselves an earlier finishing time. 
I got to the race start with 5 minutes to spare. Thankfully, it as just outside my hotel. However, I did not get any sleep the night prior, which would affect me later on in the race. The start was uneventful, except that more than half of all runners (about 250) seemed to have opted for the early start, an indication of the difficulty of the race tat lay ahead.
After short run out of town, we started our first major climb. This pretty much set the tone for the remainder of the race, you were either going up or you were going down, never less than 5 miles at a time. The fact that I continued to be caught in a train on both the uphills and the downhills ensured that I didn't start out too fast. It also allowed me to take my time and stop to take some photos. Not that wouldn't have done so anyway. It's what makes running these bucket list style races so worth it to me. I take the time to stop and smell the roses.
Sean and I ended up running the first 50K together. He was going slightly slower than he wanted, I was quite content. I figured, if I really wanted to go faster, I could do so later in the race, if I still felt that way. Unfortunately, even my slower initial pace did not safe me from issues later on in the race. In fact, I had my first low point around kilometer 45, when I just seemed to run low on energy. My legs were fine, but my energy levels were low. I had gone through all of my gels and with essentially no vegan options at aid stations other than orange slices and bananas, I would have to wait until my drop bag at 80k to reload on gels. However, by kilometer 50, I had run completely dry on fuel. I was ready to pack it in. Sean had arrived a few minutes earlier and decided to try to take a short nap. He had also struggled to get sleep the night before. 
I decided to refill my water bottles, get my gear ready and try to take a nap as well in hope of regaining some energy. It didn't work and 15 minutes later, I had to make a decision, quit now or take in whatever fuel I could (vegan or not) to be able to continue on. Sustenance over principle. I do not like deviating from my own dietary philosophy, but in this case, I decided it was time to come up with an alternative plan for cases like this, where I had no access to a crew or where it was unreasonable to carry enough fuel for the entire duration of an event likely taking well beyond 24 hours. While not the perfect solution, I had heard other strict vegans adopting this approach to get through endurance event, when sufficient access to vegan fuel is not available. I have made my peace with it now and moving forward as I have more endurance events in my future that likely will not cater to my specific dietary preferences.
Eating plenty of bread with cheese and drinking copious amounts of Coke seemed to do the trick. About 15 minutes later, I felt reenergized and ready to give it another go. I left the aid station in good spirits ready to tackle the next mountain. The next major milestone would be St. Bernard Pass or Col de Saint Bernard and I was eager to get there. This section contained some fun snow crossings. Without fail, I would slip and slide on the downhill snow sections. Later on in the race, some of these snow crossings would be slightly more treacherous. 
I made it to Col de St. Bernard without too much trouble, but i did spend time at the AS to refuel and rest for a moment. Unfortunately, the next 20k did not go so well. I continued the initial climb out of the pass with no problems, but at the beginning of the long descent, my left hip started acting up.
It wasn't a joint issue, more of a muscular pain just below the hip joint. Unlucky for me, it got worse quickly reducing me to a walk on this extended downhill stretch. I was now reduced to walking not only the uphills, but the downhills as well. This would make for an extremely long day. I continued to slow and the final 3 miles to the aid station at 80K felt like the longest 3 miles of my entire life. When I arrived at this major AS, I had already made up my mind. I just wasn't interested in walking for another 30K, in the dark, climbing two more mountains. It just wasn't worth it doing more damage, nor would it be pleasurable. I had taken plenty of pictures and enjoyed plenty of sweeping alpine views. I would rather try to recover and continue another day.
It seemed as I had made the right decision to quit at 80K and take the "bus of shame" back to Verbier. A week later, my left hip was still hurting as bad as it has during the race. Luckily, that pain has since subsides, but it has given me renewed resolve to continue to improve my core strength and my hip mobility, something every runner of any level or ability should strive for. It is the major building block for injury prevention.
Don't be discouraged by my DNF, put this race on your bucket list. You won't regret it. These pictures do not lie;-)




















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