Race Report - 2021 Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc 107M

8/29/2021 03:21:00 PM

My plans to go for a third finish at the iconic Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc got derailed early on in the lead up to the race. Not to be too cryptic, but after having dealt with high cholesterol levels over the years even after changing to a plant based diet, my general practitioner suggested a coronary artery calcification test that suggested certain high risk factors. Unfortunately, these results are never conclusive as they cannot distinguish between calcification that is extremely dangerous vs. the type that isn't. Regardless, high levels of calcification are clearly a much higher risk factor than individuals that have zero or very little calcification. Anyway, doctors can neither tell how long it's been there nor if it has been getting worse or whether its been the same and unchanged for a long time. 
As one can imagine, even though extensive stress tests and other tests did not reveal any abnormalities, this health scare has been weighing on me heavily. I have never been comfortable thinking about my own mortality and I certainly expected (and still do) that I have a lot more time to do so. After all, there are a lot more adventures to be had and my bucket list is still growing. Rather than an actual physical impediment, this has been much more of a mental challenge for me as it is always (or at least most of the time) in the back of my head.
To make matters worse, I ended up seriously injuring my right ankle the weekend after setting the course record in a gnarly 100K here in the Southeastern US. Rather than enjoying a successful race, I entered a local stage race the following weekend, were serious weather created treacherous trail conditions leading to my injury. Well, my aggressive racing was likely as much to blame as the weather. This happened in Aoril and I'd been dealing with repeated ankle rolls since, even after periodically taking time off from running, especially running on trails. 
Suffice it to say, this did not result in an optimal training cycle leading into UTMB. In addition, I had a rather packed summer of racing ahead of me, starting with the Bigfoot 200 Miler, just 2 weeks prior to UTMB. Bigfoot was to be my first attempt at the 200 mile distance, followed by the Tahoe 200 just after UTMB and the Moab 240 in October. Unfortunately, the Bigfoot 200 was over for me before it ever really started. By mile 65, I had decided to drop out of the race after moving for 21 hours due to a severe case of blisters on both feet. Triple digit temps on exposed lavarock weren't too kind to my feet. I spent most of my final 2 weeks leading up to UTMB with taking care of my feet to get them healthy and ready for another loop around the Mont-Blanc massif.
Thankfully, UTMB is about so much more than just the race. It is an amazing weeklong immersive experience in the world's trail running mecca, Chamonix, France. My wife volunteered once more to be my crew during the race, so we would travel to Europe together again and for the first time in nearly 2 years. While I had never been this uncertain about the outcome of an event, my stoke level was turned up to 11. 10,000 trail and mountain runners converging onto the village of Chamonix at the foot of Mont-Blanc was well worth the various hoops we had to jump through the ensure our passage to and from Europe. After all, safety is key in such a large scale event, so I was perfectly fine with the various Covid measures taken by the different countries and communities involved.
My wife Anya and I arrived in Geneva, Switzerland around noon on Tuesday, 3 days prior to the race start, after a trip of nearly 20 hours starting at our doorstep. We still had about an hour's drive to Chamonix, France, but that is usually the most enjoyable part of the trip. Before ever leaving on this trip, there were quite a few logistics to be taken care of. First, we needed to apply for a digital EU Covid pass through the French authorities online prior to our departure to make sure we'd be allowed to enter public and private establishments like shops and restaurants. Second, my wife needed to fill out an affidavit verifying that she was both vaccinated and negative for her entry by car into Italy, which would be required to crew me during the race as she could be asked to present this document upon entering Italy. Thankfully, Switzerland had no such requirements. Finally, we needed to secure Covid tests to be taken 24-48 hours prior to our return back into the US and administered virtually (i.e in front of a live online proctor), so we would be our digital negative Covid test which we needed to present to Delta prior to our departure. We also needed to carry our CDC vaccination card which Delta required upon our departure from the US. Essentially, we had to deal with the various requirements of 5 countries, but it was well worth it.
We arrived in Chamonix in the early afternoon. I get as giddy as a little kid every time I arrive in this village. The atmosphere is electric for seven days straight, though I keep missing the first day or day and a half during race week as we usually don't leave the US until Monday. The town was buzzing already as expected. Many runners and their family and crew arrive the weekend prior as there are seven races taking place spread out throughout the week with the main event, the UTMB being the last race to start, usually at 5PM on Friday afternoon. This year, UTMB along with the other races and distances utilized a wave start, three waves broken down based on individual runner ITRA rankings (i.e. expected pace) with approx. 1000 runners each, starting 30 minutes apart with the first wave which also contained the elite runners starting at 5PM.
We checked into our AirBnB first, which almost became a disaster as I was somehow unable to use the AirBNB app to contact our host. Luckily, I eventually found our host's mobile number, which allowed me to reach him. We parked our rental car and lugged our 50lbs duffel bags and suitcases up three flights of stairs. Our tiny studio apartment was in the perfect location, a 2 min walk to everything, the expo, the race start, the bakery, the bar, everything was right there. After we dropped off our bags and realized that we had neither linens, a shower curtain, a TV or WiFi, we checked out the race expo, which is always a fun thing to do to ensure that you're not passing out in the middle of the day due to jetlag. 
While we walked around the expo, I made sure to check in with my various friends who had already arrived. Even though France is essentially on the other end of the world, or at least 12+ hours of air travel away, it is like homecoming of sorts. I get to reconnect with friends I made either at UTMB in previous years or stateside while running different ultramarathons. And that's how I basically spent the next two days leading up to the race, meeting up with friends both old and new during shakeout runs, over coffee or for a beer. In between, my better half and I would try to catch some sleep somehow. It seems every year jetlag becomes more and more of a challenge for me.
On Tuesday evening I also dropped off a couple of pairs of shiny new trail runners to have custom Vibram sole put on them. Vibram offers this as a free service, encouraging runners to test their latest lugged trail outsoles. Always feels like xmas when I finally get them back on Friday morning. On Thursday, it was time for race check in to pick up my race bib. Unlike in previous years, check-in was very quick. Covid precautions meant no mandatory gear check, at least not during check-in. I was in and out of there in less than 15 minutes. 
Every day leading up the race race consisted of starting the morning with a latte and a couple of croissants from the nearby bakery followed by a baguette for lunch. For dinner, we'd usually splurge a bit and meet up with friends at any one of the local restaurants. Chamonix has plenty to offer, even for us plant-based folks. 
I spent most of Friday leading up to the race start rethinking my gear choices. It seemed to be the only thing I could actually control. To make matters even more interesting, the race organization notified runners via text that we would be required to carry the additional mandatory winter kit along with the regular mandatory kit after all. Initially, we had received information that only the regular mandatory kit as required along with a "suggested" third layer. However, weather in the Alps (as in any mountain range) can and will change quickly. Once I had my gear sorted for the last time, I laid down again to rest and stay as relaxed as possible, By the time we made our way from the starting wave corral to the actual start line I had already been awake for a good 10 hours. As a result, runners are often awake for more than 48 and as much as 60 hours straight. Sleep deprivation and hallucinations have become close acquaintances of mine during this event.
As mentioned earlier, the race organization had elite runners and other first wave runners gather in a pre-race corral about a quarter mile from the start line and 90 minutes prior to the 5PM start. I had really hoped to stay in our apartment as long as possible, bur rules are rules. As it turned out, we were able to voluntarily have our mandatory kit verified, allowing us to avoid another gear check during the actual race. While we were fully exposed to the sun during our wait, it wasn't as warm as I had feared. I started the race in a short sleeve shirt, but fully expected to put on my Patagonia Houdini windbreaker as soon as the sun went down. As it turned out, I would be wearing the Houdini for most of the race, except right after the start and for the final 10 miles of the race. In between I would put on my puffy MHW Ghost Whisperer jacket, but only for very brief periods during the coldest parts of the night.
While the mood was still pretty subdued in the pre-race corral, once we got to the actual starting line in the center of Chamonix with the music thumping the atmosphere changed very quickly. The announcers were hyping up both the spectators and the runners and there was even a high wire slack line artist taking pictures of the crowd from above. I used the time to find some shade along with my good buddy Joel from Nashville as we waited for the start signal. I called my wife to find out where exactly she was going to be located during the start, so I could try to pick her out in the crowd after we took off, but that turned out to be an effort in vain.
At 5:02PM, runners were sent off on one of the most spectacular adventures known in the world of ultra running. As I always do when in Chamonix, I managed to link up with Joel Meredith, a trail running crusher from Nashville, who came off his most challenging Hardrock 100 finish to date, actually ending up in the hospital for a couple of days after. As expected, that did not deter Joel from traveling to Chamonix to at least toe the starting line once more. He was going for his fifth finish, but expectations were low considering that he still clearly was not fully recovered from the aftermath of this year's Hardrock. Be that as it may, his current condition actually put me closer to his running abilities for the day, so we actually ended up starting the race together and sticking together into the night, where we would eventually lose touch with each other on the second and while not the highest certainly the longest climb of the race to the top of Col du Bonhomme, ascending to the top of the pass for nearly 15 miles. The entire UTMB course, which takes you all the way around the Mont-Blanc massif, includes a total of 10 significant climbs totaling 33,000 feet of vertical gain and since it is a loop, 33,000 feet of descending as well. I mention this, because the descending is way more important (read painful) than the ascending. 
Flat-landers like myself may be able to simulate continuous climbing on a treadmill by setting a desired grade and just keep hammering it, but it is impossible to simulate the equally sustained downhill running one has to endure during this amazing race. As the saying goes, what goes up must come down and that is exactly what happens here, ten excruciating times. The most memorable descends are the extremely steep descend into Courmayeur, Italy, the perceived halfway point and major checkpoint (aid station) at mile 49 and the final 10 mile descent starting at Tete Aux Vents via La Flegere (the final checkpoint) into Chamonix. Many runners fall victim to the steep descent into Courmayeur, quite literally blowing up their quads too early in the race and reducing themselves to a lot of walking for the rest of the way at best and dropping out entirely at worst. Even with the race experience requirements to enter the UTMB lottery (at least one challenging 100 mile finish and another ultra finish), the dropout rate doesn't lie. This race is absolutely a graduate level event, even for experienced ultra runners. This year, nearly 1000 runners out of nearly 2500 starters DNF'd the race. As I found out later, Joel eventually had to drop out of the race due to the issue mentioned earlier. Here is hoping for your speedy recovery, Joel.
Joel and I had settled into a comfortable pace very early on, neither of us having ambitions beyond finishing the loop around the mountain. The first highlight of the race for me occurred as we entered St. Gervais at mile 13 of the race. As we were running down the center of town with spectators lining the streets and shouting "Allez Allez" as we passed, I also heard someone shout my name. Normally, that is actually a very common occurrence as our bibs have our first names in large print, encouraging strangers to shout your name with encouragement. This is one of the things that makes the UTMB so special. Everyone makes every single runner feel like they are special throughout the race, from start to finish and all along the way. Anyway, I was confused as my bib belt had actually slipped and was now on my back, thereby preventing anyone from actually seeing my name. I did a double-take into the direction of the person shouting my name. "No way!" I shouted, "Alan?" It was Alan, indeed. I met this guy 3 years earlier somewhere around Courmayeur as we were both struggling to keep moving. It turns out, misery loves company, so we joined forces for the next 50+ miles and finished the 2018 UTM together. We've stayed in touch ever since.
Alan had participated in this year's TDS, one of the major events of the week on par in difficulty with the UTMB. He had stuck around in St. Gervais to cheer on myself along with another couple of his friends. Did I mention I love the global trail running community? Alan would hit me up later on on Sunday, where we would meet all meet up for ice cold post beers in Chamonix. Thanks for being there, Alan, it really lifted my spirits early on in the race.
The next major highlight for me would be the next checkpoint at Les Contamines Montjoie at approx 20 miles. I would finally get to see my better half (and crew) for the first time. She had crewed me during my first UTMB six years earlier and had sworn never to be up for 48 hour straight ever again. Thankfully, a rental car made crew logistics for this event significantly more manageable. It may be worth noting at this point that crewing the UTMB is nearly as difficult as actually running it due to the massive logistics involved in getting yourself around the mountain and to and from the actual aid stations. If you have the time, explore the checkpoints ahead of time to help your crew figure out where to park, etc.
Thankfully, my wife mastered all of these issues beautifully and I got to see her just as I had hoped. To be honest, I almost never need any of the extra supplies I pack into a crew backpack. We have to carry a significant amount of mandatory gear, so the only things you really ever need aside from that is the food and drink from the aid stations. However, being a plant-based athlete comes with serious challenges in an event like this as Europeans love their meat and dairy (lots of Salami, cheeses and cakes at the aid stations). I decided a few years ago while having to lay down in the middle of a 50K in the Alps that sustenance is more important than principle. During events like this, if necessary, I will follow a vegetarian diet as that greatly reduces stress levels at aid stations for me. I make this decision based on the individual event, not as a blanket choice. So while I didn't need any of the gear my wife had brought, I did need the sight of her being there to give me another boost. She always know just what to say to keep me going. Not that I needed much encouragement this weekend, but as I got deeper into the race, it was always extremely helpful to have my wife voice in my ear, especially as I started to become more and more loopy during the second night of running and no sleep.
Due to the crew access restrictions, I would not see my wife until the 49 mile major checkpoint at Courmayeur, which meant that she could at least head back to our hotel and catch some zzz's through the night. My expected arrival time in Courmayeur wouldn't be until 8AM or so at the earliest. By the time I started the painful descent into Courmayeur, I had already completed 4 out of the 10 major climbs in the race. the fifth and arguably steepest climb of the race lay just ahead as we made our way out of Courmayeur and towards the next aid station at Refuge Bertone. But before I worried about that I needed to do some minor foot care, which required gear my wife carried for me. But where was she. I tried calling (cell coverage is very good, but you need to be sure your phone is ready for international roaming as you make your way in and out of three countries during the race) and finally got a hold of her. She was somewhere outside the building, very different from my previous experiences 3 and 6 years ago. Due to Covid precautions, race organizers kept crew in an area outside the building and that really threw me off, to be honest. I had spent the last hour descending into Courmayeur planning out this particular stop, everything I needed to do, etc. Not finding my wife for nearly 20 minutes and having to shuttle back and forth from outside the building back inside to take care of gear changes really threw me off. This never happens to me at UTMB, I always roll with it, but this really got into my head, at least while there. Ultimately, I finish just the essential maintenance and went outside to spend a few moments with my wife. I am glad I did. While I barely ate inside, she made sure I ate some pasta and drank some Coke. Her being there centered me again. Once I left the aid station, I was ready to take on the race again.
Having been here twice before, I was pretty prepared for the climbs, mentally at least. But since my training was rather lackluster when compared to my previous two tours, I was concerned about my physical ability to keep climbing. I guess there is some truth to the concept of muscle memory as that fear never materialized into serious issues related to climbing. However, the descending was a different story. My quads, feet (and to a lesser degree my calves) took quite a beating. I adjusted my pace accordingly and while that did not increase my race pace, it certainly allowed me to recover much faster after with minimal to no considerable muscle pain or soreness.
It would be another 50K until I would see my wife again at the Champex-Lac checkpoint, near the top of the seventh climb at mile 80ish. This climb felt like forever, mainly because I somehow thought this checkpoint would be in the valley. Instead, it took us straight up for 3+ miles to the village of Champex-Lac. One of these days, I will crew someone just so I can experience the atmosphere at UTMB from the other side of the tape.
Once again, parking was a challenge and my unexpected early arrival had Anya hauling @$$ to meet me. I decided to take my time and actually see the medical team at this aid station to retape my heels, which had given me trouble in my last race prior to UTM 10 days earlier. Thankfully, even the relentless terrain of the UTMB had only caused a couple of hotspots and taping them gave me renewed confidence. I started to get cold rather quickly. The weather had stayed cool and often chilly at the higher passages due to strong winds throughout the race. I needed to stay warm. My windbreaker and gloves did the job for most of the race. Only twice did I pull out my puffy jacket, which became too hot pretty quickly. Longer than usual stays at aid stations often meant a cooler core, requiring me to pick up the pace.
Runner being medivac'd from the course as I was making my way across the sixth peak at Col Ferret
Somewhere around Champex-Lac, I connected with another runner as is often the case during the night stages of this beast. Frenchman Francois-Cyrille was great company through the entire night as we kept each other moving and, more importantly, awake through the second night. We would have actually finished the race together, if I had not had an urgent need to find a bathroom at the final checkpoint at La Flegere, which caused me to push ahead after we completed the final of the last three climbs to the top of Tete Aux Vent. But I'm getting a little ahead of myself.
I'm pretty sure, Francois -Cyrille and I left Champex-Lac together, ready to tackle the last three climbs together. I would see my wife again at Trient, just after the first of the final three climbs. Francois-Cyrille kept me moving and I kept him moving. To be honest I think I was the only one struggling to stay awake, so I'm very glad he was there to keep me awake. We made it to Trient in decent time, moving well on the climb, but slowing down significantly on the descents as our quads were shot at this point. It didn't matter, we knew we were going to finish this thing, no question, no doubt. The most challenging part for me was staying awake. There were moments of delirious conversations inside my head followed by replying out loud, which would ultimately make me wake up and wonder where I was, followed by seeing the craziest things along the trail, hallucinations galore. From people hanging out to fancy bars and restaurants on the side of the trail, there were so many things I saw that clearly weren't there. The only good thing about my hallucinations was the fact that I knew they weren't real. Unfortunately, that didn't keep them from happening or me questioning whether they were real this time. Obviously, they never were. 
In Trient, it was time for another reset. Anya had brought some cash, so I could go over the other side of the tent that housed a full service bar (read wine, beer and booze), a restaurant, a DJ and an impromptu Karaoke bar. The mood was festive, to say the least:-) I scored some boiled potatoes and salt from a local volunteer and went back to the other side of the tent were runners and crew were getting ready for the next stage. I decided here that I would not ask my wife to meet me again before the finish. It would give her time for another nap and I was confident at this point that nothing would derail my finish, other than falling asleep and falling off a mountain, which was a real possibility. Again, I am extremely thankful to Francois who had to wake me up more than once while we made the final two ascents of the race. Once day broke once again, I got a much needed energy boost and falling asleep was no longer an issue. Instead, I started to "smell the barn."
Once final stop at Vallorcine checkpoint and we were off to tackle the final climb up Tete Aux Vent before finally starting the descent into Chamonix. There is one more stop at La Flegere, but that is usually just needed for a mandatory bathroom stop, at least for me, before starting the steep 6 mile descent to the finish. I saw one more familiar face on the course, this time at the start of the Tete Aux Vents climb. Sondre Amdahl, a Norwegian ultra badass, whom I'd met during the Everest Trail Race in 2017. He was there supporting coaching clients as they tackled their UTMB race.
Once Francois and I topped out on the last climb, I needed to get going. I needed a bathroom break and La Flegere promised a proper bathroom. Francois and I said our goodbyes and I went on. I am happy to report he finished just behind me for his first UTMB finish. He has now finished, CCC, TDS and UTMB. What an animal!
As I started the final descent to the finish from La Flegere, I was excited. I was actually feeling like I could run again and so running I did. I know my spilts don't reflect it, but it felt like I was flying down the mountain. I was no longer walking, I was running the entire descent passing fellow runners along the way.I had no intention of leaving anything out there. Of course, I had received strict instructions from my wife to "get my @$$ off that mountain as fast as possible. This was a race after all!" So I did, with a huge smile on my face. I managed not to trip or roll my ankle and that was a huge success considering. I rolled into Chamonix feeling energized and endlessly happy. As I made the final turn to the finish, unbeknownst to me, my good buddy Brian Metzler (whom I'd met 6 years earlier at UTMB, of course) followed my to the finish with a camera, recording my final "sprint" through the finish line arch, but not until I spotted my wife near the finish to collect a much needed (for me) and deserved (for her) smooch. 
It was my slowest loop around the mountain, but probably my favorite of the three, but that's probably always true of the last one. We finished out the day with vegan burgers followed by a few pints with my UTMB family and friends. A huge congrats and shoutout to my buddy Tobias, who also finished his first UTMB. We spent the days leading up to the race keeping each other calm and collected as we prepped mentally and I'd say we succeeded:-) Until next time, Chamonix. Hopefully, I will be toeing the starting line once more, but if the lottery gods never shine on me again, I will visit you anyway. You are my favorite trail town. The only way that will ever change is if I get into Hardrock 100:-)
A huge shoutout to my wife for always being there to support me, in person and otherwise. I may be able to do these things alone, but they only become meaningful to me with her by my side. And to my son Mace and my brother Andy, who have been there in the past to support me and to all of my friends, Jerry, Paul, Jeff, Cary, Scott, Jeff D., and so many others who have been there to crew or pace and just generally be there to provide their encouragement and support. It's what keeps me participating in this sport we call ultrarunning. 







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