Thursday, August 31, 2017

UTMB 2017: so close to the start, how did I even get here?

UTMB, Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, a beast I tried to avoid for so many years, and it is now around the corner. yikes! I am even deemed ready for it, not injured, all the mandatory requirement gathered, checked in as of yesterday, and even with the privilege of an elite start, so really no way to escape at this point. Even for the bad weather ahead.
But... how did I get here, this is actually a long story... shortened into the 6 following vignettes.

0. Prehistory

It started many years ago as a matter of fact. First, my wife has spent vacations in Chamonix every year since she was a baby so, when I met her in Geneva, we got accustomed to stay together here. Leaving in California since 1998, we only spend a few days every year but it always feel good to visit, this is such a unique place for people loving the mountains. I only wish I didn't lose my agility on the trails after I broke my shoulder 5 years ago. Since then, I've developed a fear of falling as soon as the trails turn technical, and there are plenty of them on the UTMB course, even more so dangerous with rain, snow and at night.

1. UTMB multi-year prelude

My first encounter with the course and the idea of running this beast was actually pretty amazing as I had the opportunity to tag along with the Lafuma ultra running team in August 2007; what a blast it was to share the trails with such experienced and talented runners! I titled my blog post UTMB training camp: trail review for 2008? But I then decided to focus on North American races since then. Due to the bad weather on day 1, we covered the whole course in 5 days instead of the 3 in the original plan.
In 2008, the excitement went up a notch as I joined Team Lafuma again but with a notable addition, Scott Jurek! However, I had a train to catch on day 2 of their program so only covered the first third that time (UTMB training with Scott and Team Lafuma).
In 2009, I ran almost the whole course in two days, but had to call it a day at Le Col de la Forclaz, fighting GI issues after eating a delicious cheese omelette at La Peule. I assure you, I won't touch any cheese during the run this year!

In 2010, I ran my own CCC, albeit missing the final climb to La Tête aux Vents and coming back to Chamonix through Argentière.

And, this Monday, 4 hours after landing in Geneva, I took the train from Chamonix to Vallorcine with my Silicon Valley mate, Mike Kreaden, to run the final section which I didn't know, up to La Tête aux Vents and through La Flégère. (Next three pictures are from Mike.)

With that, I can't say I don't know how tough the course is, I've been warned as we say... ;-)

2. The elite corral, really?

The news came by email last week, I was invited to join the elites at the start of the race, what a cool honor and perk. With 2,300 registered runners, I wasn't planning on standing for an hour or more in order to start at the front. Well, now I'd better start fast if I don't want to get hurt by 2,000 charging bulls behind!

How is the elite status determined? With the ITRA (International Trail Running Association) ranking which has almost a million runners in its database (close to 997,000 to be more exact)! It is actually this ranking which got me to run UTMB this year. I must admit, I wasn't found of the idea of running a single trail with 2,300 other runners, furthermore in bad weather conditions potentially. But, last year, I discovered that my ranking (785 points at the time) made me eligible to bypass the lottery (runners between 750 and 849 points get in and pay, those above 850 points don't even pay!).

I knew I couldn't maintain this level for too long. As a matter of fact, the ranking doesn't take the age into account so I'm the oldest of these 118 elite men, which is a fate in itself.
With that though, I really don't have other expectations than finish so I can put a check next to UTMB. Still such a daunting task ahead tomorrow and Saturday, and maybe even a part of Sunday...

At the expo, I met Jeff Browning who, at 46, thought he was the oldest in the group. Sorry, Jeff, in a few years maybe... ;-) Besides, you are still way too fast and strong!! Here we are in front of the booth of our sponsor, GU Energy (Made in Berkeley, California!).
23 nations are represented in this elite group, led by the host country, France, then USA and Spain. Many duels in perspective among these three leaders, and Hoka and Salamon. To my dismay, my sponsor, Brooks, despite having 5 different models of trail shoes, wasn't represented at the expo.

3. The inbound flight

After the good news of the elite status, my luck continued with an upgrade on the flights from SFO to IAD and IAD to GVA. On the second leg I met a few members of the Western States Board, Donn Zea and Race Director, Craig Thornley, here with his wife as we wait for our shuttle.
Great opportunity to sleep so I could have this run a few hours after landing, then be rested enough to keep working my first job in the afternoon and evenings this week.

4. The check-in and expo

Again, got super lucky on Wednesday because I was counting on staying in line for at least an hour and went for the checkin at 1 pm, while it was scheduled to open at 2, only to find out they had opened early, sweet!
For the non insiders: we have to carry a lot of mandatory equipment for the race and here is the way they check you have it, by random sampling. At check-in and potentially anywhere/anytime on the course during the race.
I spent the next two hours chatting with a few race organizers and vendors, most especially RaidLight which is now part of the Rossignol/Dynastar group and plan on expanding in North America. Even met with one of the employees, Sergio Fernandez from Spain, who told me he was an avid runner of my blog! Small and connected ultra world! ;-)
 Overall, except for the absence of my sponsor Brooks, quite a show of ultra and trail brands!

5. And, last but not least, the weather...

It's changing so fast, I'm going to summarize the randomness of mountain weather in three pictures, they speak for themselves.


Panorama from our balcony (with a trick, Mont Blanc being the lowest peak in the middle):


Oops, the trend isn't toward my favorite weather conditions which are dry and hot. What about rain, snow and freezing cold instead...?

Anyway, almost midnight on Thursday, time to go to bed and, for once before such a long ultra, with the opportunity to sleep in tomorrow morning since the start is so late, at 6 pm. Pasta party for lunch then and see you at the start or on line! Bib #164, here I come to the wet party!


Thomas Reiss said...

Good Luck my friend. I am still debating if I ever want to tackle UTMB. Good for you to go for it.
Stay safe.

Michele Sun said...

Bonne chance!!
As always, truly enjoy reading your post!!

Unknown said...

Bonne route Jean. Bises à ma famille

Steve said...

Have a great run, my friend!

antfugue said...

Good luck! Enjoy following you wherever you run.