Sunday, September 10, 2017

UTMB 2017: what happened…

First, a warm thank you for tracking my progress during the race, sending encouragements before and as I was moving, or checking on me when I wasn’t anymore… And to all of those who either trained hard but couldn't make it to the start, toed the line or even finished, congratulations, this is quite the beast I imagined, a race worth being the epicenter of the worldwide summit of ultra trail!

Well, now, with all the live coverage provided by the top notch race organization, there isn’t much suspense to hold in this race report, isn’t there? By now, everybody knows that we had quite some bad weather and that I dropped around kilometer 98, out of about 167. The weather was bad enough that the course got two minor changes a few hours before the start, to avoid two of the exposed peaks but still leaving the insane difficulty of this course pretty much intact. Another way to look at it though is that the weather wasn’t as bad as a few years ago when the race stayed on the French side of Mont Blanc. UTMB has definitely seen a broad spectrum of weather conditions in 15 years!
After having a blast at Boston on a hot year, and winning Ohlone for the 6th time thanks to the traditional high temperatures which suit me well, I felt sorry that I didn’t run UTMB the past two years instead of this one since they were hot years. While I did run my fastest 50Kin freezing temperatures in March 2016 in New York (3:18:05), it was short enough that I could resist. More than 5 or 6 hours in the cold, and I’m missing body fat and/or will power to hold on… Throw some rain, hail or snow, and I’m way too Californian now to survive! So, while I was super stoked that the weather looked ok at the start of the UTMB 2017 edition, I knew I was on for an epic run if the bad weather forecast materialized at any point, and especially during the first night...

Ah, the start… this is probably the best souvenir which will stick for many years. As I mentioned in my previous post, I had just enough points in the ITRA ranking to have a preferred access to the elite corral, I just had to get to the start line 20 minutes before the gun (which got delayed by 30 minutes to 6:30 pm to account for the course change). The closest to that was when I got an elite start at the Chicago Marathon in 2003 or the first corral at Boston.

With that I couldn’t have better pre-race conditions, leaving our apartment with the family and friends by 5:50 pm and having the opportunity to approach and mingle with the World crème de la crème of ultra running!

However, being the oldest in this special elite group (see my previous pre-race post), I humbly went to the back of the corral where I actually met Dominick Layfield, who lives in California but was running here for the Union Jack. We both ran Quicksilver 100K this year, him taking 1st and I, 3rd.
Look at how many runners are behind us, more than 2,500 starters this year! They even seem to come out of the church...
So cool to start that close of the UTMB arch or door:
Thanks to this ideal placement, I was able to run through the start line, something 2,000 runners behind weren’t able to do as we are channeled by one deep row of spectators on each side for at least the first kilometer. I was amazed by how many people there were, all yelling and almost each of them holding a smart phone: how many hours of video where taken at this point, that must be a lot of cumulative disc storage! ;-)
An image extracted by Max of his video of the start, with my blue GU Energy cap in the center:

With a downhill start, the pace was rather fast for such a grueling 100-miler. Despite running under 8 minutes/mile for the first 5 miles, I got passed a lot and had no clue where I was in the field as we started the first steep climb after Les Houches.

By then, it was already drizzling and, the higher we were going in the cloud, the wetter we got. I felt great in the descent to St Gervais (km 21), just that I had to stop at some point to put my headlamp on as I couldn’t see enough when we were crossing tree areas. After these quiet miles, it felt bizarre but quite uplifting to get into a super noisy crowd, reminding of the Boston Marathon one. I stopped at the buffet and was super pleased to find watermelon among the many choices. In July I ran the Montagn’Hard and there wasn’t as much variety; I had thought it would be the same for UTMB. I also grabbed a cup of Coke and was back on the road to Les Contamines in the dark, and the rain.

I arrived there completely soaked and was looking forward to meeting Max who had additional dry and warm clothes for me for the cold night ahead. However, upon getting under the tent, no sign of Max, oops! I didn’t panic, thought that we had started too fast anyway so didn’t mind resting a bit, went to the food and drink tables to refuel while waiting then called his cell phone. He had been stuck in the shuttle in the traffic for hours but, thankfully, was now just 5 minutes away.

As I was waiting, I asked two ladies if they knew if there was snow ahead at the Col du Bonhomme and they replied: “we don’t think so… however, Killian Jornet changed here and put two layers on.” Oh, what a precious tip, that definitely got me to pick my warmest long sleeve top, plus a light rain jacket/wind breaker, and my warmest tight too. Plus Gore-Tex shoes. And a waterproof pant on…

In this unusual costume for me, and a long break, I went back on the course, feeling good to be dry and warm but… not feeling much strength left in my legs already, darn! We were only 31 kilometers in the race, that didn’t feel right at all. Just before leaving Les Contamines, Max told me I was 111th overall and 2nd in my age group, and that was more that I wanted to hear as it meant I had started too aggressively (which I had a hint when the MC announced Sébastien Chaigneau was just ahead of me, oops!).
I got passed by a few runners on the rolling section to Notre Dame de la Gorge, then by more runners as we started our second steep and long climb to the Refuge du Col du Bonhomme.

Half way up, we were timed at La Balme and one volunteer told me I was looking good and now in 160th position. It was getting really cold with the altitude and the trail alternated between rocky sections with high steps or mud. I tried to focus on the use of my poles to keep a strong pace but got passed again and again which was kind of demoralizing.

I was feeling so cold, what kept me moving was to get to the pass where I thought I’d find a tent to stop and put my waterproof jacket. To my dismay, there wasn’t anything at the top except a super strong and cold wind coming right in our face. I found 2 runners on the side of the trail who had stopped, shivering in the hail and cold to put their jacket on, and I did the same. With this third layer, plus my Brooks waterproof mittens, I quickly felt way too hot and excessively sweating in the descent to Les Chapieux.

The descent was made of muddy gullies and I had to slow down to avoid falling in traitorous switchbacks, getting passed by more and more runners. I was really pleased to reach Les Chapieux, it was bringing back great memories from my recon runs, in sunny weather… I drank a few plates of soup, a few cups of Coke, removed my hot gloves, fleece hat and waterproof jacket, hoping this would allow the sweat to dry. We had more than 17 kilometers before the next aid station at Lac Combal, including a climb to Col de la Seigne, the French-Italian border, 1,000 meters above Les Chapieux. Or maybe only 15 km since we didn’t have to climb to the Col des Pyramides this year but still a very challenging section.

In the climb, I tagged along/behind a tall runner whom I thanked at the top (Alex, #845, from Switzerland). I was happy we had passed a few participants on the way up and, although feeling cold after this sustained effort, still being wet, I decided to keep going to get to a lower altitude as soon as possible. But going down was difficult and I was relieved to make it to the Lac Combal aid station, with its full buffet. I switched my phone on but couldn’t get much service. As I left the station, it was drizzling and windy and I got so cold that I stopped to put the waterproof jacket on again (I had removed it at Les Chapieux). These details may seem irrelevant but, first, it was taking me a few minutes each time, opportunities to get even colder every time I stopped in the cold wind and rain and, second, they mean to convey that I couldn’t find a way to regulate my body temperature, either too hot with three layers at lower elevation or too cold when wet at higher elevation. I was thinking that I should have taken a picture at the start of how small Jeff Browning’s bag for instance looked. But Jeff lives in Bend, Oregon, so he is made of iron, both body and mind. Not me… definitely! Oh, and he is super fast, 4th at Western States this year!

I had a short conversation with a runner named Nicolas and I tried to stay close behind in the climb to the Arete du Mont Favre but I lost him as I had to stop again to drop a layer... The descent to Col Checrouit was slow and I got passed again by maybe 30 runners. When I got to the aid station before the plunge into Courmayeur, one runner told me “Wow, it seems like your legs are trashed!” I’m sure they might have been a bit of empathy in the intent, but what a demoralizing ‘encouragement’ and way to kill your competition mentally! ;-)

The sun was rising and the view were finally magnificent, the clouds clearing up. At this point, my mind was set to just keep moving and finish no matter the time it was going to take. I walked most of the 4 kilometers down to Courmayeur, it was as bad as I remembered from running that section years ago.

I was so relieved to get to Courmayeur (km 80), I even ran up to the gymnasium's entrance and was super glad to see Max for the second time. As a super crew, he had only slept a couple of hours, getting back to Chamonix at midnight, setting the alarm clock to check on my progress at 2 am, then 3 am, and jumping on the 4:30 am shuttle to Courmayeur. And he welcomed me with a big smile and all my stuff perfectly laid out on a table so I could quickly see what I needed.

But speed wasn’t my thing anymore, I got in at 7:30 and left at 8:20. I even tried to sleep on a coat but couldn’t feel asleep within 5 minutes so decided I’d better move, reviving in fresh and dry clothes.
Something weird happened with my Garmin during these 50 minutes indoor: the GPS kept adding some distance and logged a total of 4 kilometers during my stop!
As a matter of fact, as I left the sports center, I took a wrong turn but I quickly figured out something was off and retraced my route back to the famous steep climb in direction of Refuge Bertone.

I passed a dozen of runners in that climb, while I definitely had no legs on the descent, I was actually enjoying the climbs, especially with the poles! Besides, it was now sunny and I had changed to my standard shorts and short sleeves Quicksilver Club top so I was resurrecting. I even passed more runner in the next two miles of that rolling section which is my preferred one of the whole course, with breath taking views of the Italian side of Mont Blanc. But… the clouds came back again and, with them, the rain… As the weather was changing, we got this amazing rain bow and I couldn’t resist stopping again to get my phone and take a few pictures, the only pictures I took during my run, or hike rather.

Looking at these pictures, you may think "Looks like quite a good weather to me" but keep in mind rainbows form in misty conditions... I was just lucky to capture a rare sun ray in the midst of the storm...

Anyway, I got cold again at Refuge Bonatti were the wind got very strong, and put my third layer on again. The next 5 kilometers down to Arnouvaz were super slow and painful and I was hoping to recharge at this main aid station before the tough climb over Grand Col Ferret and the Swiss border.

Down there, we could see the trail climbing right into a thick cloud and the volunteers and medical staff decided that it was so bad that we couldn’t leave the checkpoint without all our waterproof layers on. That said enough to me about the conditions ahead and for the next night, so much that I started contemplating dropping before the 14 grueling kilometers to La Fouly, the next aid station, not to mention the 900m of D+ and 1,100m of D-, some very technical (so technical that Jim Walmsley would lose his 2nd place to Killian Jornet in that descent after the Col Ferret).

It took me an hour to make the tough decision as the volunteers triple checked if I was certain given I still had 6 hours before the cut-off. They cut my bib and off I was for a long journey back to Chamonix. Indeed, there had been an accident in the tunnel between Italy and France and the traffic as backing up for more than 3 kilometers through Courmayeur. The shuttle driver knew of a bypass though so we ended in Chamonix around 4 pm, which gave me a lot of time to enjoy Max’s visit rather than making him spent another sleepless night on the Swiss side. I must say at this point that I do feel bad when a race turn sour and I have a crew that I would make wait for hours.

I got to bed at 9 pm and slept for 12 hours, feeling quite good on Sunday morning, waking up to quite an amazing weather.

We went to mass then climbed to La Flégère, on the UTMB course, giving encouragements to the numerous runners finishing between 42 and 46 hours. A few had a second wind in the technical downhill while most were in much pain but determined to complete the whole loop.

I didn’t know what type of therapy that would be for me; on one hand it was quite inspirational to see all these runners making it. On the other, I wish I had done it myself, especially given the now superb and hot weather on this Sunday afternoon. What was the most uplifting however was flying down to Chamonix with Max, on the ski run which returns to the start of the telecabine.
 From the terrace of La Flégère:
 And down in the finish area where the Rotary Club was serving a nice local light beer!
Here is our run on this cool website, (click on the image):
I was back just in time to attend the final award ceremony recognizing all the sponsors and officials, as well as the 10 gals and guys of UTMB 2017. It actually looked strange that the ceremony was so sunny after getting this bad weather in the first 30 hours of the race. Well, not 30 hours for Francois D’Haene who killed it again this year, winning his 3rd UTMB in 19 hours, in front of Killian Jornet and Tim Tollefson. Jim Walmsley battled so hard after La Fouly to take 5th overall, behind Xavier Thevenard. 2 French, 2 Spaniards, 2 Americans in the top 6, what a grueling and impressive competition at the front!
2 runners managed to complete all the 15 UTMB, what another feat of regularity! Here is Didier Delemontez from France (the other runner is Anke Drescher from Germany):
I had dinner at our Chamoniard friends’, Yves and Véronique, then, thanks to Mike Kreaden’s connections, finished the day at the Grizzly bar where many ultra celebrities and champions were celebrating. Here with ultra rock stars Jamil Coury promoting his Run Steep Get High brand (center) and Topher Gaylord who used to live close by, run UTMB, represent North Face then Columbia and today, Under Armor.
Mike is right: UTMB is to ultra what Boston is to marathon running. The size of the event, the crowd, the level of competition, the number of countries represented, the organization.

Speaking of Boston, I think I’m clearly more suited to shorter distances and, certainly less technical… Here is the scoop: on Monday I got a special comp entry for Boston 2018, based on this year’s (age group)performance. While I was thinking of returning in 2019 when I’m the youngest again in the M55-59 group, this is too good to pass on, right?

As for coming back to finish UTMB? Never say never —as we say!—but I don’t think so. Actually, I’m tempted by the TDS instead (Tour des Ducs de Savoie), I’ll check that one closely (I should have enough ITRA points by this December to by pass the lottery again). At least, I have all the mandatory equipment now, and the qualifying points, so better put all that to good use.

As I write this report on the TGV to Paris, I still can’t exactly explain what happened this weekend and why I decided to call it a day, as opposed to pulling my guts together to go over the bad hump. Although my main and officially only goal was to finish no matter what, there is still my competitive side which prevents me to run my own race when passed by hundreds of competitors. I did fear the size of the event but I must say everything was going smooth on the organization side, very impressive. Yet, I was really annoyed that, every time I was slowing down, I had someone getting right behind me and had to stop to be passed. I’m used to races where I don’t see another runner for 15 or 30 kilometers, well not UTMB! I also didn’t feel like imposing 2 sleepless nights on Max but, more importantly, my body and mind were way too weak to surmount these weather conditions. Also, despite the pride of having been the oldest among the elite ranks, I’m sad to realize it was likely the last time, I have to get the wisdom to accept aging. Or maturing… ;-) Hard to swallow overall but it’s not my first DNF (my 11th out of 147 ultra races), I’ll be ok if not already (well, I got a cold over this, my first of the year, finally, and in the summer!).

Maybe the hardest to swallow is that there had been so many stars aligning this time: I was very well prepared, well trained although maybe on the over side, I had a great crew, an ideal start albeit maybe too fast of a one eventually, no GI issue, able to eat and drink according to the plan although I might have enjoyed too much soup after all. Just that darn cold and wet weather which I couldn't bear for so many hours... And too many conflicting goals battling in my mind.

My GU Energy and Vespa Power arsenal at the start:

I am going to close this post by stating how much respect I have for all those who finished, from the amazing performance at the top to those who kept moving on this terrain and in this weather for up to 46 hours. I feel like what we experienced this weekend is like another sport, not the ultra running we have in California on smooth trails. Despite having run several 100-milers or even longer distances at 24-hour events, I still have to run for more than 24 hours myself. This is the thing with ultra running: there is no limit in its definition: anything longer than a marathon. The only limit is yours… And I found mine once again last weekend, thanks to getting the guts, and the privilege, to toe this prestigious start line on Friday. As always, and like every ultra runner, I’ll be back! Thinking and dreaming of TDS now, this is a addictive drug... ;-)

PS: more bonus pictures...

From the award ceremony, highlighting my fellow Americans in particular, way to represent among the top 10 with an odd series: Zach Miller, 9th, Dylan Bowman, 7th, Jim Walmsley, 5th and Tim Tollefson, 3rd.

The no-less impressive girls podium:
And the race founders and co-directors, Michel and Catherine Poletti:



Petit Boulet said...

Pour résumé : de la sueur, de la douleur, des larmes et ............ du Bonheur ;-) Bien sûr !
Merci Jean pour ton récit épique de ton UTMB 2017

Sophie said...

Ns venons avec Alexeï de terminer la lecture de ton article. Merci Jean pour ce beau récit... et l'analyse très intéressante de ta course !
Je pense que cela restera un grand souvenir pour Max également !!!
Pas de pb ns te suivrons l'année prochaine sur la TDS bien sûr !
Grosses bises de ns 2