The goal is to finish...yeah right
For most individuals running an ultra-marathon, their quick response when asked their goal for any given race is 'I simply want to finish'. This couldn't be further from the truth, as most of us know deep down inside exactly what we expect time wise or place wise from ourselves from a race but are hesitant to put it out there as this sport is full of the unknowns, no matter how experienced one is. Even though most of us have these time goals, it's extremely tough to put these goals in the public domain as all too often they become very difficult to stand up to when the carnage sets in and it turns into survival mode. No one wants to be held accountable to such self-projections when they hit rock bottom. 2014 UTMB was no exception for me as my sub 30 hour goal yielded ~38 hours.
THE RACE - The Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) is a single-stage mountain ultra-marathon. It takes place once a year in the Alps, across France, Italy and Switzerland. The distance is approximately 105 miles, with a total elevation gain of around 31,500 feet. It is widely regarded as one of the most difficult foot races in Europe. It's one of the largest with ~2,400 starters.
WHY DID I PICK THIS RACE - I decided to do UTMB on a whim. Just a few years ago, had you asked me if I would be up for it, I would've said no and that I had other more local races I would've liked to do. In addition, it's also very difficult to train for such a mountainous race in NYC. The following statement sounds obvious but it often takes years for one in this sport to 'learn' and that your best chance for success is to race on a course where your training can mimic race conditions (terrain, altitude, weather, etc.). Nonetheless there is also an adventure side to most of us in this sport where we just want to see exactly how far we can push ourselves, no matter how far outside our normal way of living it is. We don't want to be excluded from an event just because of our limited surroundings to replicate the racing venue. This forces us to sometimes jump in the deep end and figure some things out as we go. Life can't also be 100% about the 'known'. Chances need to be taken to make us feel alive. And no matter how much you try to replicate a racing venue, unless you live there and train directly on the course, there will always be that unknown. Heck, even if you do live there and train on the course there will be the unexpected!
In addition, my family and I love Europe and for my job I have to take a mandatory 2 week vacation and what better way to spend this time then in lovely Chamonix, France. Finally there aren't too many times in life where the stars align to do races of this magnitude so I figured, why not give it a go while I have the opportunity. So I put in for the lottery without consulting anyone but my wife and I was selected. Unbeknownst to me, my good friend who also lives in NYC, Gab Szerda, also entered the lottery and was selected. This was great news as it would give me someone within my morning training group with a common goal.
PREPARATION - After a rough 2013 in which I suffered a stress fracture in my sacrum, 2014 was going to be a smarter training year (of course I have been saying that for years and something always seems to have happened to me!). Some of the changes I made were the following:
1. Plant powered VEGA fruit/veggie/protein shake directly after my 2 hour AM training session (I used to solely wait about 1 hour and just have about 32 ounces of orange juice)
2. Run in my Hokas more - more cushion, less stress on the body. Everyone should give these shoes a try.
3. Stick to 1 session per day and not try to do double runs during the week. So I only did cardio in the morning and at night I did about 20 minutes of a circuit focusing on lunges, core, and lower back.
4. Mix up strictly running workouts with treadmill climbing and often times with a backpack - once again less stress on the body pounding wise but is a killer workout when treadmill is at least 15% in grade
5. Focus more on long runs on the weekends as opposed to just a steady amount spread out over a lot of days. What I mean is it's better to do less miles during the week with a large spike on the weekends than just keep the same number of miles over a 7 day period, even if it's the same total number of miles for the week. You need to train with the longer distances. So the makeup of the miles run during the week is more important than just the overall miles one gets during the week.
My training progressed well and to compliment point number 5, many times I would use races as the long run training. One of the races I was signed up for but didn't know if it was the smartest to do was the Vermont 100 miler only 6 weeks prior to UTMB. After consulting with many on the subject, some were for and some were opposed. Some said to drop to the 100k, but I love 100 mile distance, felt in shape, had never had never reached my potential at that race, and figured once again how often are you in situations to do these events. I did VT100 miler, had a great race, felt solid all the way through and got the monkey off my back. I recovered very well and felt like I had great momentum going into UTMB.
Another key session I incorporated was 1am wakeups on work mornings, usually once every 2 weeks, with my buddy Gab (mentioned earlier), where we would drive 1 hour north to Bear Mountain in Harriman State Park. This is the most popular climb closest to NYC and we would do 3 hours of repeats prior to the work day on the Appalachian Trail. There were also a few weekends where we did longer sessions up and down the 1,000 foot climb over 2 miles.
REQUIRED GEAR - In addition to all the physical prep, there is a large checklist (relative to other ultras) of mandatory equipment to be had on each competitor throughout the race. This added a new element to a 100 mile race as I have never had to run one with a bunch of gear on my back, so I wanted to make sure to not only get the right equipment, but also to make sure my body was strong enough overall to handle the extra load. That list is here:
· Mobile phone
· personal cup or tumbler 15cl minimum (water bottle not acceptable)
· stock of water minimum 1 litre
· 2 headlamps
· Survival blanket
· adhesive elastic band enable making a bandage or a strapping (mini 100cm x 6 cm)
· food reserve
· Jacket, with a hood, capable of withstanding the bad mountain weather and made with a waterproof (minimum recommended: 10 000 Schmerber) and breathable (RET recommended less than 13) membrane (Gore-Tex or similar)
· long running trousers or leggings or a combination of leggings and long socks which cover the legs completely
· Additional warm midlayer top: One single midlayer long sleeve top for warmth (cotton excluded) with a minimum weight of 180g (Men, size M)
OR a two piece clothing combination of a long sleeve baselayer/midlayer for warmth (cotton excluded) with a minimum weight of 110g (Men, size M) and a windproof jacket* with DWR (Durable Water Repellent) protection
OR a two piece clothing combination of a long sleeve baselayer/midlayer for warmth (cotton excluded) with a minimum weight of 110g (Men, size M) and a windproof jacket* with DWR (Durable Water Repellent) protection
· Cap or bandana
· Warm hat
· Warm and waterproof gloves
· Waterproof over trousers
I did extensive research to find what I thought was the most reliable and best equipment out there. It's unreal how much stuff there is out there when one starts to take an in depth look into this world. You want to find the right balance of how much and item weighs, combined with its functionality. A piece of gear means nothing if it doesn't protect you from the elements or does what it is stated to do (i.e. a headlamp that doesn't light up the trail adequately or rain gear that doesn't keep you dry). It is also hugely beneficial to start this process early as you can save hundreds of dollars if you shop right. Below is the gear I went to battle with and I was very satisfied with my choices:
· Ultimate Direction Scott Jurek Vest - originally had the AK vest but needed more room
· Nathan waist pack - I can hold 16 gels in this
· Tommy john 360 sport underwear – a must have if you are a guy! You can forget lube and it won’t even matter. For those of you who still wear the underwear in the race shorts, I feel for you. Plus you wear these under tights/shorts if you are going between both.
· ASO ankle stabilizing braces - I rolled my ankle really bad in Central Park last year and it hasn't been the same ever since. Katie found me a great pair of ankle braces that a lot of pro tennis players wear. These have been great and give me so much more confidence to run through more technical terrain. I encourage anyone who has weaker ankles or who just want more support in the trails to try them.
· Hoka Stinson ATR trail shoes with my custom orthotics - wanted to use the Hoka Rapa Nui but gave me a few foot problems in training runs (smaller toe box) so I went with the larger Stinsons and was very happy with this choice
· Injinji knee high compression socks - not the biggest fan of running with compression socks but did so for a few reason. 1. Protects my shins/lower leg from the potential chaffing from the ankle braces (note I have use the braces for 50 mile races and even 20+ hours at hurt with minimal damage but just knew I would be out there much longer and didn't want to take a chance. 2. Weather was colder and the extra coverage couldn't hurt, plus there was a stipulation for the mandatory gear that states you have to be able to cover your whole leg with material and this helped me achieve this directive.
· Sural 3/4 length tights - I 'Europeanized' after the forecast called for some rain. I wanted more protection on my legs that would be tight fitting, keep me warm and dry quickly. I LOVED THESE!! I didn’t want to go full length tights as I had the compression socks already and didn't want tights under the ankle braces
· Race Ready shorts - I put these over the tights as I’m not a big fan of tights on their own and don't think any guy should be! Plus the race ready shorts have a ton of pockets that I load up with gels and use for trash
· Tech t-shirt
· North Face arm warmers - didn't wear initially but put them on at night
· North Face storm blocker rain jacket - very light, very packable and wore this on and off throughout the race
· Mountain Hardware rain hat
· Timex digital watch - I’m not a fan of GPS watches; I simply set my watch on timer for every 30 mins and then take a gel. That is my fueling strategy for 100s and it has been a huge success for me. My gel of choice is chocolate and vanilla Clif. I literally ate ~80 gels over this race without 1 issue. It’s the most effortless and efficient way to ingest calories.
· Princeton Tech Apex Pro headlamp - this is an absolute bomb proof headlamp that lights up the woods like it's daytime! I do switch settings depending on the terrain, how fast I’m going, whether I’m climbing/descending to get the most battery life. Batteries usually last about 4-5 hours but it's worth carrying a spare pair to have this headlamp. This is probably the one piece of equipment I am most impressed with. (I had a much smaller petzl light as a backup)
· Amphipod Hydraform Ergo-Lite handheld – This bottle is an absolute game changer. I tucked this behind my lower back in my tights so I had extra water capacity during longer sections between aid as there were some aid that took me over 3 hours to get to. It’s large enough to make a difference but small enough to go unnoticed.
· Patagonia down shirt - very packable, very light, and only needed right at the end to keep me warm
· North Face advent pro rain pants - didn't need during the race but used them over the 2 weeks when it rained and they were great
· Hanz waterproof gloves - didn't need them but I know they were plenty warm
PRE RACE WEEK: It was finally time to depart to Chamonix and departure was going to be on the Monday, 1.5 weeks before race day with a Tuesday AM arrival. This would give me time to enjoy the town, acclimate a bit to the elevation and enjoy some of the trails prior to race day.
As soon as Katie, Anders, and I arrived, we knew this was going to be a special town and a special race. Chamonix is a very beautiful town surrounded by high snow covered peaks with an active vibe that is hugely supportive of outdoor living. We rented a large loft that could sleep 8 so we could extend the invite to friends and family. On week one our good friend Marni Joy and her 3 kids (Tyler, Jack, and Victoria) joined us for an awesome week. My 3 year old son loved playing with the older kids. Marni and her family really helped keep my mind off the race and I was able to settle in and just live as normal as possible over there. We had a blast.
I'm not the biggest fan of a long drawn out taper so I was planning on at least ~12 hours of solid training during the week Marni was with us. I think I got in ~6 two hour + runs in the hills of Chamonix prior to race day. We had an awesome hilly, rocky loop right outside our door that climbed ~3300 feet directly up the mountain. A round trip for me on this loop took me ~2:20 which was perfect. I was feeling strong and more confident each time I did this loop and my breathing became easier each day I was there (not that Chamonix is at some crazy altitude or the UTMB race in general, but being from NYC and at sea level, any amount of altitude does have it effects). Chamonix is ~3,300 feet in elevation and the race got north of 8,000 in a few sections.
The town was abuzz with runners from all over the world as there are 5 total races going on throughout the week with all different distances. There were over 7,500 total runners for these races (~2,400 for the UTMB).
It was sad to see Marni and her kids have go after the first week , however with her departure came my cousin Daniel from Sweden and my parents.
I ran 2:20 on the Monday of race week and then another 1 hour on Wednesday. The race started at 5:30pm on Friday night. I have never been part of an ultra with this many racers so check in was a process and the energy was definitely evident. I can only describe it as the NYC marathon of 100 mile running races
The one element of UTMB that everyone is aware of that no one can control is the weather. This race has had years of brutal weather where the course has had to be shortened, altered due to snow, strong wind, etc. I'm not the biggest fan of cold/wet races but all you can do is prepare accordingly and hope for the best.
UTMB is a 5:30PM start and people start lining up well before that. It looks more like the start of a high profile marathon than a 105 mile mountainous trail race. There is a lot of excitement in the air and that’s when the rain started. What was nice though is that it wasn’t cold so it was bearable and the rain only lasted on and off until about midnight.
The race started and off we went. The first part of it is pavement to a fairly flat/wide dirt path as there are ~2,400 runners trying to cram their way through. I maintained my comfortable pace and nothing is really worth noting at this point. We got to the first town and it’s a huge affair. Tons of people supporting and cheering. Kids are outside high fiving the runners and I made an attempt to high five as many as possible for good karma. This is clearly a well embraced event for the towns we passed through. The Europeans tend to ‘endorse/support’ outdoor activities much more than those in the USA. Where races in the USA constantly have to deal with towns/land owners that aren’t happy to have an event, the whole time during this race it was a very communal affair and that was a huge uplift for me as a participant.
My nutrition strategy is now always the same for every ultra I do, 1 gel every 30 minutes for as long as possible. I’ve never had an issue with this strategy so initially the aid stations were a very fast visit for me as I would just refill my water and be on my way. I felt very comfortable on the course and the climbing starts very early as we were at a ski resort hiking up the trails. The rain continued and when we finally reached the top it was time to run down and this was probably the scariest part of the race given how slippery it was. I took my time and managed not the fall but there were plenty who couldn’t do anything but fall. Lots of mud and wet grass doesn’t make it easy to keep ones footing, especially with how steep everything was.
There’s really not much to report until the ~48 mile mark. Actually I’d say this race can be broken down into 4 distinct parts, miles 0-50, 50-76, 76-92, 92-105. For miles 0-50 I kept the pace steady, was quick through aid stations, fueled efficiently, caught a lot of people on the climbs, and then got passed on the descents as I’m not the best downhill runner and I tend to take them more conservatively. The climbs were very very steep though, and it felt like the 15% grade on my treadmill didn’t prepare me much as many hills were north of 25% grade in sections. But living in NYC, sometimes you have to just train with what is provided to you.
Miles 50-76 (this is when the race turned on me and the fun started)
I don’t know why, but when I left the ~mile 48 aid station (courmayeur) and started to climb (probably ~7am) it just felt like more of an effort than any of the hills we had the first 48 miles. We were climbing a very steep hill and the climbs in this race just take forever. I had to stop at times just to catch my breath in check and I wasn’t going that fast, but on the flip side I wasn’t getting past. I think it was just the nature of the climb. Upon getting to the top I definitely started to feel the toll of the race on me and knew it was going to be a battle going forward. I wasn’t too happy feeling like I was as early on as my training definitely should’ve prolonged this feeling. On top of that, my calves were feeling beat up like never before. They felt like they were right on the verge of cramping (although they never did) and I was very surprised as I’d never experienced any issues with my calves prior to this race.
There was a relatively flat section for 7.5 miles after the summit of the hill and I was now just shuffling along and speed walking…I knew something wasn’t right but this wouldn’t be fully exposed until the next climb up to Grand col Ferret. At the aid station prior, I called my wife Kate to relay to her that this was going to take a while as my calves were shot and I felt fatigued. This wasn’t a normal you’ve been racing for 15+ hours type of fatigue up and down hills, something deeper that I can’t explain. Elevated heart rate at minimal effort, out of breath, etc. I was fueling fine all race but sometimes it’s just not your day. I was happy with how the race went up to the halfway point but realized I had only gone halfway. Kate assured me to keep plugging along and that’s what I did.
The climb up to Grand col Ferret ~62 miles was extremely difficult for me. The beauty of UTMB is it’s so vast and grand. The bad thing about this is you can see exactly what you are about to encounter. I saw some small movements on the ridge in the distance and I knew that’s exactly where we were headed and wasn’t too excited about that. This course was marked very well and there were ribbons/reflectors every 20-30 yards. On this climb I started my strategy of just making it to the next marker and then stop to catch my breath for a count of 5. This was not all due to me feeling ‘bad’ at this point, these climbs are very very steep and there are no breaks. Everyone is forced a walk and a slow one I might add. I kept my head down and just got into a painful rhythm. I repeated this until I eventually reached the top some 1.5 hours later.
At the top there is then a roughly 12 mile downhill. I was hoping I would spark to life and be able to do this more effortlessly but it felt just as bad as the climb. About 15mins into this descend my body was just shutting down and I had no other choice but to pull off the trail and shut down for 30 mins. I was at the point where I couldn’t stay awake. The problem with my planned ‘break’ is that all participants are to make sure they are to help anyone they see in any sort of trouble. So as I lay there, every competitor that came by asked if I was ok. So I really didn’t get into much of any sleep rhythm. Another guy I was with for a bit saw me, said that’s a great idea, and took shelter across the trail to have a nap of his own.
This break definitely helped to a certain degree and I was able to slowly make my way to La Fouly at mile 67. I no longer felt like I was going to fall asleep and that’s about as much help as this break provided. I still felt horrible and after I left the La Fouly aid station I did what I never had prior in any races I have ever done. I called Katie and just cried. And cried and cried. Told her I was sorry for wasting her and Anders time with all my training. All those tired days I had and time wasted away from the family. Told her I was suffering and not moving well and I felt really bad. I felt like I owed those who I sacrificed time and energy for, the right to me having a good race. Now I was out here embarrassed of not hitting my potential and staying away from my family even more than I had planned. I cried for every step I took during training that wasn’t currently being reflected during the race. That’s all I can say about it, but it happened. I was a broken man. Katie almost fell into the trap of my breakdown. However she is experienced and was able to strip away the emotions on her end and tell me flat out that I was going to finish this race and I can cry afterwards. She said I had a 46 hour time limit to figure things out and to make it happen and to keep moving. She assured me that she and Anders were fine and that the ball is in my court to deliver. Tough love for sure! Behind this tough love she was worried and did know that I was at a low and she was now feeling more than ever that she had to come out on the course to come and see me. I told her not to because it’s not easy navigating roads out there, especially with a 3 year old in the rear seat. But she said she’d see me at mile 76 if she could manage.
In hindsight I didn’t call my wife to tell her I’m quitting. I legitimately felt bad at my progress and my bad performance. I felt I truly owed her an Anders an apology. I can’t explain why I cried, it just happened. Sometimes this sport strips you to nothing and you need to know there are others that you know out there behind you, especially in a race with no pacers and where you aren’t seeing any friends/family at aid stations.
So off I was to mile 76 at a slow pace, survival mode. 8.7 miles which I know was going to take me a while. But I thought just make it to 76. In fact I started to take every aid station checkpoint as its own race. Just make it to the next and you’ll be alright. Some 3 hours later I rolled into mile 76 and I knew Katie wouldn’t make it as she was manning the home front but we agreed on mile 86. I took my time at each aid station now to make sure I was fueled and mentally ready for the next section. I started to eat the salty soup they had and this was delicious. This race was no longer about a time but about just to finish. Each individual leg I had to mentally prepare myself to venture back out. I know I had it in me with my training to break 30 hours on this course and that was my hidden time goal but that time goal was now long gone.
I made it to mile 76 but still had ~29 miles left…such a long time. In ultras you never try to grasp the concept of how far you have to go and you always try to break the race into smaller pieces. But when you feel bad you can’t help but feel how enormous the task at hand is.
I finally left aid station at mile 76 and called Kate again for nothing more than to just check in and tell her I would see her at mile 86 but it was going to take a while with the pace I was going. I then called my buddy Oz Pearlman who is a veteran in this stuff and he knew what to say. (Advice – if you are ever in this situation of feeling low in an ultra, only call those with experience as those without can easily make you throw in the towel thinking they are doing the right thing). Oz gave me some tough love as well. Told me to just treat this as a long hike, try 5 mins run 1 min walk and things like this. Told me I had to finish, no other option. Told me to pop some caffeine/pain killers and get going. He helped me a lot and I slowly started my 10 mile journey to the next aid station.
I’m unsure what happened next, but something just clicked where I felt my energy come back. My heart rate was lower, my breathing was more controlled, I felt like I could climb quicker and more efficient, and most important overall my head was back in the game and I could focus again. This was huge for me and is one of those moments where things just turned for the better. I’m unsure why but wasn’t about to care to find a reason. So I made it up the climb and Katie called saying she was having trouble getting Anders down to sleep, but before she could finish I said no worries, I was doing much better and I’ll see you at the finish. I told her I snapped out of my bad spell and was now focused at the task at hand. She still wanted to see me on the course so we agreed on the final spot she would’ve been able to and that was mile 92.
At the mile 86 aid station I felt much better and was once again enjoying the experience. I refueled, took my time and made my way out of the aid station when I was ready. In my mind I knew I would finish as I felt good. My body (other than my calves) was fine. I think my body wasn’t overly trashed as I just walked for so long! I took this 6 mile section and treated it like the finish of the race as the last segment to me mentally was a done deal. Stupid to think that way but just being honest. Plus it would be where I would see Kate and my dad who would be waiting for me. This 6.2 mile section took me 2:45 hours just to put in perspective how rugged the terrain and how steep the climbs were. I rolled into mile 92 at 1am some ~31.5 hours into the race. Strangely enough though, I wasn’t sleep tired at all. I was looking forward to my time with katie and my dad and was very positive heading into the last section.
I loved seeing Katie and my dad at the aid station. Such a pick up for sure. I was going to enjoy this time with them and take my time. I was told the last 12 miles were brutally slow, technical, and would take around 5-6 hours! I was in a great frame of mind and was up for the challenge, but for now just refuel and enjoy the company. All time goals were out the window and this was now (as stated before) just about the finish. Whether I came in at 35, 37, 40 or 45 hours didn’t matter much. What did matter though is that my whole family wanted to be at the finish line and knowing how long the last section would take, every moment I spent at the aid station with them was another minute they could sleep in the AM!! So after ~30 mins I was off to finish this damn thing!!
The last section of UTMB is like no other. I was in a good frame of mind and am highly confident most participants would agree that this last section is absolutely the most epic of the course. The climb up to Tete aux vents is just nuts. Switch back up rocky stairs, rock climbing with hands, never-ending…absolutely awesome. This race wasn’t going to let anyone say they are finished until they absolutely crossed the finish line. About 5 mins after I left mile 92 I saw a headlamp behind me and it was a local named Klaus. We quickly formed an alliance and something told me we were going the final distance together. Klaus really didn’t speak much English but somehow we knew what each other meant. He was ~60 years old and climbed like a Billy goat! He was a local and a great guy. Oh, and here’s the best part…he was running the race as a bandit!!! Yep, no bib. Just jumped in at the start and did the whole race. I still have a hard time comprehending this fact. Heck, I don’t understand it at all but to Klaus it made perfect sense. I was in the mindset now to enjoy this last part of the race, so after a 2 hour climb; we shut off our headlamps and sat on the top of the mountain in the middle of the night. It was so nice to just enjoy things. We didn’t sit too long as it got cold, but truly a highlight of the race this was for me. This is a good time to point out that at no time during the race was I cold. As long as you kept moving you were ok. Overall we had great weather for this race.
After reaching the final aid station it was 5:30am and I texted my dad and said I’d be done ~7am. I was just going to hike it in, be smart, and enjoy myself as it had been a long day. It was very rocky/technical descent and the daylight was starting to emerge.
Some ~38 hours later I crossed the finish line. The highlight of the finish was seeing Katie, Anders and my parents. To have them there was truly special. And being able to bring Anders down the finish was something I will never forget. I didn’t have any adrenaline rush or overflow of emotion, simply a satisfaction to finish the journey I started and to be able to share this with my crew. In addition, finishing that early in the morning is pretty anticlimactic spectator wise, but I’ve never been one for any big celebrations at finishes anyway and I think I always set the record for quickest exit post-race.
On paper I’m happy to have finished this race. However I can’t lie and say there isn’t another part of me that is truly disappointed at not showing my true potential. The beauty of racing is to timestamp and display all the hard work we have done. You can’t walk around saying how many miles you ran, how many lunges you did, or what time you woke up before work to do hill repeats. What is acceptable and understood is the race time and place you achieve. I’m not saying I do this for others, but there is a huge part of oneself to forever capture their fitness reflected through a forever cemented time on the clock or place amongst others. But I think that’s the beauty of long distance endurance races, the element of the unknown, the uncontrollable. The longer the race and the more varied the terrain, the more varied the weather, the more unpredictable the outcome will be. I do wish I felt better during the daylight hours (50-76 mile) as there was such beautiful terrain and scenery that I wasn’t able to fully appreciate. The 2 times I felt good were during dark hours, go figure!!
I would highly recommend this race to anyone involved in the sport. I personally like the lower key ultras but this is something special to experience. I will be back but not in the imminent future. And when I come back I will be even more prepared and knowledgeable. For now I’m going to enjoy the downtime and slowly plan 2015.