Friday, September 21, 2012

UTMB 2012-Running in the Dark

Waiting for the Start- Photo Tanae Nelson
All year long I have been focused on getting ready for the Ultra Trail Mont Blanc.  It was THE race on my calendar for the year, all of my running training had this race in mind.  The course for the UTMB is 167 km (104 miles) with 9500m of ascent (32,000).  I developed training runs that would maximize ascent and descent to get my legs used to pushing uphill and pounding down.  I followed the advice of UTMB veterans and tried to train as much as I could in the Tetons because they thought it would be the ideal training grounds (bonus!).  I ran 2000 training miles between January 1st and the week before the race.  I felt quite ready to run a challenging hundred mile race in the mountains of France.

Checking in at the Sports Center- Photo Tanae Nelson

We, my wife, Tanae, and I, arrived in France a week before the race and she helped me to stay focused on tapering and resting before the race.  Tanae wrote a separate post about our two weeks there so check it out here.  As we got closer to the race the typical self-doubt that comes during a taper wreaked havoc on my confidence.  Without days laden with miles I found myself restless and not sleeping well, but regardless I rested.
Race day finally arrived, but with it adversity.  The weather forecast was not ideal for running high, exposed passes.  As a matter of fact the weather was calling for temps in the high 30's to low 40's, rain in the valleys and a snow line at 2100m.  The race would cross that line many times, which had the potential to make for very difficult conditions, maybe the worst type for running.  The runners get wet from the rain in the valley and on the ascent the temps drop, runners get cold.  I did not envy the position the race directors were in as they considered the course, course changes and the safety of runners.

Me, Krissy, and Topher about 20 minutes before race start- Photo Tanae Nelson

Around 2:30 in the afternoon, about 4 hours before the start, the announcement came.  Course changed, France only, 110k, 6000m ascent, start at 7:00pm.  Initially I was upset, I didn't fly across the ocean to run a 100k in the dark, in the valleys below Mont Blanc! We scrambled to find the new course map, but most of us were quite unfamiliar with the area and looking at the lines on the topo didn't improve  my negative mood.  I had to put myself in a time-out, during which I forced myself to put myself in the RD's shoes, I understood the change and if I was going to enjoy the race, and race well I needed to change my attitude.  When I came out of the time out I had a new attitude and was looking forward to the adventure.  After all, I had never started a race in the evening, in the rain, in France, with 2300 other trail runners, it was going to be fun for sure.

Start of the race- Photo from Jonas Buud's Facebook Page

I lined up at the starting line at the very front next to Topher Gaylord and Mike Foote both of the US.  It was an amazing spectacle to see so many people lining the course as it wove out of town.  The start itself was insane.  As the ten second countdown started there was a surge from behind slowly pushing us forward. With three seconds to go Mike Foote pushed on my pack and said "go or we are going to get trampled" and with that the whole front of the pack exploded forward.  Seb Chagneu, a famous North Face Runner, tripped and went down about 3 people to my right.  As I saw him fall I wanted to help him up, but to do so would have been the same as stopping the Snake River from flowing downstream, instead I sprinted out of town like a frightened rabbit.

Krissy Moehl speeding out of the start- Photo Tanae 

As the initial surge of adrenaline seeped out of my veins I realized how fast we had gone for the first several km's and I immediately slowed down.  "This race is shorter but it wasn't that short," I told myself over and over again.   I lost a handful of places but felt comfortable with my pace.  After 10k or so of running we finally got off of the packed paths and roads and started to ascend up a ski area.  I felt pretty good running the ascent and regained several places as we made our way up.  It was starting to get dark and also started raining during this climb.  At the top of the climb I switched on my headlamp and promptly found myself on my back.  The first part of the descent was on a grassy sidehill that was nice and wet, and turns out it was super slick.  I picked myself up and cautiously worked my was down onto the steep service road that would be our descent down.  Once on the road I tried to open up my pace some, but found that the faster I tried to go the more I was getting past.  I know that I am not the best descender, but it was almost embarrassing how quickly the other runners were able to move.

stoked for dry clothes, somewhere in France in the middle of the night-  Photo Tanae

Before long the trail leveled some, the rain fell harder and I was alone, in a gap between groups of runners.  I held my ground here as we ran on another packed service road alongside the highway.  I didn't lose any more places as I ran up the next ascent and then down into Les Contamines.  I met Tanae here and swapped out my jacket and long sleeve shirt for something a little more substantial.  I knew that we had a big ascent into and above the snow line and didn't want to worry about being cold.  Moments after arriving, I was leaving. The streets in and out of town were lined with hundreds of cheering people, most of which had cowbells and despite it being about 40 degrees, raining and around 10:30 pm they all seemed to be having a great time.

I had a long rough patch on the ascent out of Contamines.  My legs felt sluggish, and my I couldn't seem to get my head wrapped around pushing through whatever was going on.  I slowly lost place after place on the climb, which chipped away at my fragile mental state.  Most of the ascent was on service roads just after an aid station that was high on the climb the surface switched to trail and it felt like I had new legs.  I was able to run well, snow swirling all around me.  I enjoyed this boost for half an hour or so until the trail dumped back onto a ski area service road, and as quickly as it came my legs felt flat again.  Clearly it had to be mental, just a change in surface couldn't have that much effect on my legs right? I shuffled my way down, down and down, absorbed in the cone of light that the fog created around my headlamp.  Eventually the surface changed to pavement and a few more houses popped out of the mist.  The whole sky lightened some, I was getting close to Les Contamines once again.

Headed back into the dark- Photo Tanae

It was good to see Tanae, Jon and the key members of Krissy's crew, KP and Ellen. I switched clothes again choosing to get into lighter layers now that the rain was easing some and we would be at lower elevations for the remainder of the race.  I mumbled something to Tanae about it not being my day and headed back out into the dark.  I ran ok up the first climb, but on the descent the wheels came off.  I was wallowing in my sad, sad mind when Topher Gayord caught up to me.  He was moving well, I tried to hang on for a few minutes, but when I realized how long our upcoming climb was I rolled over and started walking.  I watched Topher run away into the night.  When I finally topped out the Bellvue (?) climb I sat down at the aid station and drank soup for several minutes. I actually sat there until I got cold.
The aid station worker warned me that the hill was slippery and to be careful.  I quickly learned that when given that type of advice during UTMB to pay attention.  I was tiptoeing down and watched another runner charge ahead of me, slip, slam onto his back and then slide more than 100 yards down the hill.  I took stage left and ran through the weeds on the side of the trail.  I checked to make sure the runner was ok, and then went on my way.  The entire descent down, a couple thousand meters, was the slickest goop that I have ever run in, actually I skied more than I ran down the trail.  For once I was relieved to get onto a service road that had decent traction.  It also meant that I would see Tanae again.
In the aid station I got a different response from Tanae than I expected.  She verbally slapped me around trying to motivate me to get after it and to quit feeling so bad for myself.  I tried to blow it off, but she would have none of it.  I left the aid station kind of upset that she took the hardline, but as I internalized what she had said it did motivate me.  I put in my headphones and went to work.  When I left Les Houches aid station I was in 57 place.  From there I ran every step of the long road climb up to Merlot, then we were routed onto a nice technical single track.  Like before as soon as I was on single track I had life in my legs, and this time it was even more than before.  I hammered all the way back to Chamonix, blew through the aid station and kept working hard as we climbed towards the final aid station of Agentiere.

I knew that I would run out of real estate before I ran out of gas, so I pushed hard.  I passed lots of runners along the single track.  I caught up to Topher just before the last climb (one we didn't know existed).  I tried to bum a little water off of him, because I had ran out by not filling up at the aid station near Chamonix.  He had done the same and was starting to hurt because of it.  I kept pushing up the ascent as my mind panicked while trying to solve my hydration dilemma.  I thought about drinking out of puddles, sipping water off of wet leaves, or licking wet rocks.  Thank goodness we crossed over a nice stream before I resorted to any of the previous, and I took a few moments to drink heavily and fill my hydration bladder. I felt rejuvenated and then really tried to push the descent down to Argentiere.
I met Tanae just outside of the aid station, she handed me a red bull, and smiled.  I knew I was running more like I should have been and she felt the same.  I chugged the red bull and headed out. 10k of mostly down hill to the finish.  We had joined in with the CCC runners so there was a lot of traffic to keep me motivated and to keep chasing down runners.  About 1 k to go, just before entering Chamonix, two runners blew past me. I didn't have much of a response but put my head down and pushed hard to the end.  It was amazing to run into town to the cheers of hundreds of spectators, and to finish with a big hug and kiss from Tanae.  I managed to move up more than 20 places in the last 30k to finish 32.

Coming down the finish chute- Photo Tanae

Happy to cross the line- Photo Tanae

mixed emotions at the finish line, glad to be done, but left wanting. Photo Tanae

Topher and I at the Finish- Photo Tanae

Our feet after 110k in the mud and rain. Photo Tanae

The kiss at the finish line that made it all better.   

 Topher finished a few minutes later claiming 34th.  We spent several minutes talking about the race, talking to the race directors and enjoying the scene.  The chilly air finally got the best of us and we made our way back to the apartment.

Krissy finishing strong- Photo Tanae

Krissy, me, and Mike Foote at the Finish. Photo Tanae

After quick showers and a change of clothes we went back to the finish to watch Krissy finish.  It was super exciting to be back in at the finish.  We got the chance to congratulate Mike Foote on his fantastic third place finish and then we all cheered for Krissy as she came across.
As I reflect on the race I realize I could have ran better if I had, had a better attitude, but in the end I really did enjoy myself during our night time adventure in France.

Some of my gear laid out before the start .

Shoes: Patagonia Evermore (spring 13)
Socks: Patagonia lightweight Merino
Tights: Patagonia Speedworks
Shirts: Base- Patagonia Gamut team jersey, Light Flyer long sleeve, Forerunner long sleeve and Cap 4 hoody. (I switched the long sleeve layers during the night to stay warm and dry)
Jacket: Patagonia Houdini, Stormcell, and a prototype Jacket (I also swapped jackets when I changed long sleeves)
Headamp:  Black Diamond Polar Icon
Pack: Ultraspire Omega (UTMB edition)

First Endurance EFS/EFS LS slurry (5 10oz bottles)
First Endurance Prerace (3 at the start and 1 every hour after 4 hours)
First Endurance Ultragen at the finish for recovery.

I need to thank Patagonia, Patagonia Footwear, Ultraspire, First Endurance, Roch Horton, and Chris Johnson for all of their help with gear and helping make it possible for me to go on this amazing adventure!  As always a huge thanks to Tanae for crewing, allowing me to go on these crazy adventures, and letting me have the time to train.  Thanks to Chloe and Brynlee for the inspiration and a huge thanks to my mom for watching them while we were gone.

1 comment:

  1. Luke, Great post and run! Keep it up. Sorry your head wasn't in the right place for the run, you will crush it next year.