The Trials of My Ultra Trail Du Mont Blanc

I set high standards for myself and my running goals reflect those standards. I don’t always set out to win big races. The Ultra Trail Du Mont Blanc (UTMB), a 171-kilometer footrace circumnavigating Mont Blanc, was the exception. If I met the goals I’d set for the race, I would’ve been in contention.

My eighth place finish at UTMB doesn’t tell the whole story. I didn’t meet all of my goals or run the race I thought I’d run. But I fought hard to finish, and that’s the victory I’m most proud of.

As the European trail scene’s crowning attraction, the 171-kilometer (107-mile) UTMB loop circles the iconic Mont Blanc and runs through three countries. More of a celebration of the Alps than a simple run through the mountains, UTMB is the pinnacle of trail racing. I knew going in that the competition would be tough and set aggressive goals to match it.

Get to Champex-Lac with legs. The 126-kilometer aid station in Champex-Lac is often the crux of the race and I knew I had to conserve energy until I reached it.

Eat food, and lots of it, all day long. I pledged to eat even when I’d rather pull out my front tooth out than choke back another gel. If I stay fueled, I’ll stay strong.

Close hard. The last climb should be the strongest climb. I wasn’t going to let anyone pass me in the last third of the race.

Above all, I wanted a race where DNF-ing (Did Not Finish) never crossed my mind. I was once a tough rookie who finished races no matter what. As my athletic career blossomed, my will to finish at all odds diminished. My last goal was to tap into my old self and find the heart to finish regardless of how smoothly the race went.

Like many European races, UTMB starts in the evening to let the hosting town of Chamonix reach peak excitement when the first runners cross the finish 22-26 hours later. For elite level athletes, the 6 p.m. start means finishing on Saturday afternoon, when the streets are buzzing and bars are booming to create the best crowd in ultrarunning. However, it also means that over 2,200 athletes spend an entire Friday anxiously waiting for the start. By the time 5 p.m. rolled around, I’d hit a personal best for most calories consumed in a 12-hour period and the butterflies in my stomach were threatening to tickle it all right back out of me.

Finally, I was ushered to the elite corral. My crew peeled off my jacket and directed me into the chute. UTMB had throngs of fans lined up to greet the top 100 runners as they approached the starting line. I tried to stay calm as I ran down the chute while hundreds of people were screaming my name but the truth was that I was nauseated by the attention and longed to be at home, in my bedroom, enjoying solitude and comfort. As the hum of the electric guitar on the stage above coupled with the roar of excitement from the growing crowd, I felt panic growing inside me. But before I had a chance to walk away, we were running.

I didn’t hear anyone say “Go,” or the starting gun signaling the start of the race, but suddenly I had thousands of eager runners at my back, forcing me forward. UTMB had begun! I pushed and shoved alongside my fellow elite women, trying not to get boxed out or run over by the stampede of athletes forcing their way from behind.

I held my own and made my way to the trail intact. Soon, I grew more confident. I quickly fell into a rhythm, erasing my pre-race doubts. Before long, the knot in my stomach and the tension in my shoulders eased. Relief washed over me. I even cracked a little smile running into Les Houches, the next town over, 10k down the road from the start.

For a while, my race was just clicking. Aside from an aching back and a cough, things felt perfect. I ran through the night into Les Contamines, then up and the over three mountain passes into Courmayeur, Italy mindful of conserving my strength but still feeling strong. The climbs felt effortless and descending was fun. Aside from having to backtrack to find my spare headlamp after the one I was using malfunctioned, I couldn’t have asked for a better first 80 kilometers.

After 10 hours and 45 minutes of rugged mountain running through the night, I entered Courmayeur, the 80k aid station, in a secure 7th place. Because of the remoteness of the trail, lack of crew stops and my food allergies, I had decided to carry all of my own food instead of relying on aid stations for the first 80 kilometers. The plan worked. I entered Courmayeur well fueled and ready to take down more. My back, a source of problems before the race, was aching. Concerned that the heavy pack was exacerbating my symptoms, I ditched the snacks and resolved to fuel with aid station food until the next major crew point in Champex-Lac, Switzerland (126k).

In retrospect, I don’t know if that was the right move. As someone with celiac disease and lactose intolerance (I know, woe is me), relying on the land of bread and cheese for food is risky. And indeed, the three aid stations in the 30k between Courmayeur and the next major checkpoint in La Fouly, Switzerland lacked gluten free/dairy free options. I began rationing within the first 90 minutes. By the top of the last pass of the section, I was falling over, provoking concern from fellow competitors. But I knew that while a severe case of bonking wasn’t ideal, it was by no means cause for a DNF. Shivering from the cold of the snowy peaks and deflated from lack of food, I made my way down in survival mode, barely holding on for the aid station.

As I jogged into the small town of La Fouly, Switzerland, my awaiting friends could tell something was wrong. I was in a hole. And at 110k into the race, there was no coming back from it. I knew I’d spend the day picking up the pieces and pulling myself together. But I remembered my goals. With that in mind and with encouragement from friends, I was able to collect myself, eat some food and face the final 70 kilometers.

The section following the aid station consisted of 10 smooth downhill kilometers and a short, 3k climb into Champex-Lac, the first significant crew point since the 80k mark. That was where I’d planned to turn on the heat. I left La Fouly determined to turn myself around before Champex-Lac and started feeling a little better after eating my body weight in Snickers bars. But alas, when things start to go wrong, they go really wrong. Feeling better was too good to be true, and as I began jogging downhill, my IT Band seized up, causing a severe limp in my left leg. Even though my stomach and my energy level felt good, I had to resort to a walk, wasting easy downhill miles. I let myself feel the frustration for a moment, then took a deep breath and moved on as best I could.

Despite everything, my spirits were decent as I came into Champex-Lac and I was determined to keep moving forward. I felt encouraged that I was holding solid in 8th place and I thought I could pick some people off if I held myself together until Vallorcine, the last crew point at 153 kilometers.

I did everything in my power to keep myself going in the 30 kilometers from Champex-Lac to Vallorcine. I ate as much as I could, I was efficient at aid stations, and I did my best to stay positive. But the two climbs within that section broke me. The ups were relentless, and it was almost impossible to run the downs with my bum IT-Band. Although I was 33 minutes behind first place, I was no longer concerned with hunting those in front of me. Instead, I could worry about fending off whoever was behind me.

I don’t know if I’ve ever been so relieved to see anything in my life as the Vallorcine aid station at kilometer 153. It marked the last section of the race. I was almost done. As I stumbled into the aid station tent, I could vaguely hear friends yelling at me, who let me know how close I was off the lead pack. Ryan, my crew chief, and life partner tried to snap me back into focus, so I could refill my pack, eat some food and get out of there quickly. Still hitting my 26-hour splits, he too knew I had a shot at crawling into the top three if I were to close the race the way I’d planned.

From Vallorcine, there is a 3 kilometer mildly uphill gravel path along the river to the base of the last climb. Apparently, everyone was walking it. With the encouragement of Ryan and my crew, I decided to jog it.

With a cameraman in my face, following my every move I took my first jogging steps out of the aid station. Out of nowhere, I immediately buckled over and puked everything I just took in. Riding the excitement of my friends, put my chin up and started to jog again. Without missing a beat, my body again rejected either the jogging or the food and I once again painted with gravel path with coke and stomach acid.

I’ve puked in more races than I can count, no biggie. But what scared me was the reaction I had following the vomit. Before I could lift my head and wipe my mouth, I felt my throat swell to the point where even my breath was audible. It felt like I’d had an allergic reaction to something at the aid station and readjusted my goals from catching women in front of me to making it to the finish safely. If it got any worse, I’d be alone in the mountains on technical terrain, but I wasn’t going to DNF. I called Ryan to inform him of what was going on and made sure my phone was accessible in case of an emergency.

The last climb was as tough mentally as it was physically. I had to be conscious of my heart rate down and in control of my breathing. That meant doing 40-minute miles in a lot of spots. I could see my time goal, and other goals, slip away and I felt the women behind me getting closer. It was tough. But there was nothing I could do but keep moving forward so still in 8th, I flipped on my headlamp and began the 8-kilometer descent to the finish line.

Within the first few steps, I felt the sharp twinge of my revolting IT Band and let out a cry of frustration. I adjusted my stride, avoiding bending my left knee and was able to kind of side shuffle down the mountain. Then, the delusion my 8th place was secure shattered as 9th placed passed me. I wish I cared more at that moment, but I quickly came to terms with letting her go and being okay with 9th place.

But as soon as I had that thought, I saw another woman in front of me. It was Fernanda, a well-known athlete who had been just minutes in front of me since Champex-Lac. With 5k to go, I made a quick call to pass her decisively. I began navigating down the tricky terrain wheezing like a kazoo.

As I closed on the finish, I was terrified she, or another woman, would catch back up to me. I hit the road leading into town, and turned around to make sure I didn’t see another headlamp stalking closely behind. Though I don’t see one, I didn’t believe I was clear, and gave the few kilometers everything I had despite the wheezing, puking and knee pain.

The finish line was just as electric as it had been at the start 27 hours earlier. I expected to feel like I was shedding the competitive armor that had protected me all day. I expected to relish in finishing, high-fiving fans and maybe even walk the last few meters. Instead, I saw the finish and sped up, my armor only fastening tighter to my body. The race had been the toughest day of my life and I wanted it to be over.

My result was decent but doesn’t say it all. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little disappointed. Every one of my goals escaped me on that day and hitting my goals was more important to me than how I placed. But I’d also be lying if I said I wasn’t damn proud of the performance, which is much more than what 8th place indicates on paper. I’d persevered when things got rough and fought for my best race. Crossing that finish line was an accomplishment.

The 2018 season has been tough for me. While chasing podiums, I’d lost touch with the sport. Ultra trail running is about realizing we can do a more than we think. Everything went wrong at UTMB and I had to problem-solve. The day gave me an opportunity to see how far I could push.

No, I didn’t hit my goals. But when they slipped away, I put my head up and kept going. Before the start, I wanted a perfect race. Instead, I had a hard day and get to walk away with a sense of deep satisfaction I wouldn’t have otherwise.

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