UTMB 2017. Trial by fire (or snow)!

Bear with me here. I’ve never written a race report or set up a blog. It could get ugly… take a gel or 2 and push on. If you get to the finish line, I’m impressed!

PS. I just read this start to finish and it is WAY too long. Feel free to look at the photos and forget the reading!

UTMB (Ultra Trail Mont Blanc to my brave non-running friends that are attempting to read this saga.)

It’s an iconic trail race that starts/ends in Chamonix, France and circumnavigates Mont Blanc, through Italy and Switzerland. It’s around 168km (104 miles for my US buddies) and gains over 10,000m elevation (who knows, but it’s a lot of feet). Should be easy since you aren’t actually climbing the mountain. It’s not.

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Sweet! Just worked out how to add photos to this thing in attempt to keep you a little more entertained. This is the Mer de Glace that we saw pre-race, when it was sunny….

So I heard about this race when I did my first ultra, North Face Australia 50km in 2014. I thought, ‘that is so amazing but I will never be able to get good enough to even get the qualifying points to go in the entry lottery’. I have some pretty strong self-belief but it truly didn’t occur to me that this was something I could achieve. The amazing thing about training and racing ultras is that it is a such a slow, step-by-step learning process. Low and behold, in Jan 2017, I was dancing around the house with a “Registered” next to my name in the UTMB entry list!

Fast forward to race week and Mum and I arrive in Chamonix.

Side Note – It isn’t the coolest thing in the world to have your Mum as your Support Crew, but I honestly wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m so fortunate that she reached far more epic heights in her sporting career than I. (Yes, I’m the only family member who isn’t an Olympian πŸ˜‰ When you’re shaky mentally and physically in an aid station, it would be a total disaster to have someone pat you on the shoulder and give you a way out. I never have to fear that! Mum comprehends my burning desire to finish and is capable of kicking my arse when I need it most. Thank god for strong mothers.

So we have a beautiful couple days in Chamonix walking the last 8km of the course, going up to the top of the Aiguille du Midi. I’m a little wobbly in the stomach (there was a breakfast place that couldn’t be revisited as I returned the omelete all over their bathroom!). By Thursday I felt good in my sharpening jog. Light, fast, floaty says Hanny Allston, the super coach….. 2 out of 3 ain’t bad!

Then came the rain. Thursday we headed to Valloricine to see the OCC runners come through (Sophie Brown and Richard Bettles representing for Sydney). It was cold and very wet. I like challenging weather but this was looking a bit too epic (the weather forecast was in French but pictures of snowflakes and lightning strikes are universal!). We got to see Emelie Forsberg finish the OCC. She has such a huge smile and I thought, I’ve got to keep smiling like that tomorrow. (Emelie below.)

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The race organisers texted to say they were deciding on course changes and I got into a flat out panic. I was terrified they were going to make it less than 100 miles. It seems silly, but having spent so much time, effort and money, I wanted to race the ‘real’ UTMB. Ignorance is such bliss!

Friday Sept 1st (race day) rolled around. We weren’t starting until 6.30pm so I spent the day counting out an insane amount of gels and trying to sleep. Race officials messaged that we are on with only 2 minor changes which resulted in 4km less distance….still 104 miles….phew!

Finally Mum and I head down to the start to meet all the other crazy Aussies who think this is a good way to spend the weekend. I love the photo below. Only a couple people in that photo know what is coming, the rest of us a first-time clueless wonders.

We all wiggle into the start and it’s packed! The excitement and nerves are making the crowd vibrate. Rousing ‘off to war’ music and then the crowd starts surging. The first 4km (I promise I won’t write this km by km!) are a mix of walking and then suddenly running quite quick and then like an accordion, you came crashing back into the crowd.

Things felt comfortable and fun through the first (and I think only!) flat 8km. We started climbing and I felt good….. and then I didn’t. I got a bit nauseous (pretty typical for puky pukerson here) and a bit light-headed. It’s pretty scary when this is happening 15km in, but I thought of my champion friend Tanya Carroll who told me she had found the first climb rough. Robyn Bruins, Chantelle Farrelly and Rocco Smit came past and said hi. Rocco was joking about it being easier than hill repeats with a weight vest. I grimaced and told him I’d let him know the answer in an hour! I was really close to fainting at this point and just had to really back off. Hundreds of runners were streaming past me. This was NOT going to plan!

The brilliant thing about ultras is there is lots of time for things to come good. And thank goodness, I eventually got some gel in, put my headtorch on and as we started down the other side I felt normal and could run. Down we came into Saint Gervais (21.3km) and it was like no aid station I have ever seen. The entire town was on the streets cheering and ringing cowbells and shouting ‘Allez!’.

Back into the night we went towards Les Contamines (31.6km). It started raining more seriously. I got to see Mum there but we had already decided I wouldn’t do any re-fueling with her in case she couldn’t get there on the bus. One of my goals was to try to put a positive spin on all talk in the aid stations. I told her that it was a rough start, but I was finding my rhythm now. (Positive talk aid station #1 win!)

We followed a river and there was a cheering crowd with a bonfire and doof-doof music. It was awesome until you left it and disappeared into the black, quiet, pouring rain.

We climbed (naive me considered this ‘climbing’ at the time) up to La Balme (39.9km) and actually felt good. I bumped into Robyn (literally walked into her by accident!) and she asked if I had seen Rocco, Tim or Chantelle. I hadn’t and thought they were all in front of me but I think we must have passed in an aid station.

We set off up the climb to Bonhomme and this is where I made my first major error. I didn’t appreciate how quickly it was going to get REALLY EFFING cold. By the time I knew I needed my second rain jacket and waterproof overmitts on, we were in a serious blizzard with sideways wind and snow. My hands were freezing and I knew that stopping was no longer an option. Thank god I had read Roger Hanny’s race report about cutting up a safety blanket to stick down the front of your shirt. It absolutely saved my bacon! Apparently lots of people ended up with hypothermia.

The beautiful lights of Les Chapieux (50.3km) welcomed us back into the rain and I got the extra jacket and mitts on. I should have eaten more here. In retrospect, I was going way too long without fueling properly. Getting food out of the pack in gale force wind was not really an option so I should have been taking the time to try to get more (anything!) in at the aid stations. I paid for it on the second night.

Off into the dark again and I’m on a mission up this farm road, until a French man starts yelling at me because I have missed the clearly marked track coming off the road! I realised I wasn’t with it mentally and made myself walk and have a (previously frozen) gel. I was fiddling with my pack trying to get the gel flask back in and whammo, I nearly walked into a large cow with horns. He (or she!) looked at me, mooed and I crept around to the side apologising for interrupting his night.

Up the switchbacks we went. It was concerning how many runners with bib numbers were coming back down the mountain. How bad was it up there? I kept looking up and the headlights were so far above my head, I thought they might be stars. After a while I made a deal that I was only allowed to look up every 6 switchbacks. That went well until there was a huge traverse on number 5 and I had to spend forever staring at the ground!

Another pass (Seigne), more epic weather. Sideways snow, wind and my headlight flashed to tell me to change the battery! Perfect timing in the saddle of the second highest mountain of the course. I was too concerned about being plunged into total darkness and I changed it. Back to numb hands… but I could see!

The crazy spectators (truly dedicated in horrific weather out in the middle of nowhere) were shouting Brava! instead of Allez c’est fille! and I thought, we must have hit Italy. Didn’t occur to me it might just be Italian people in France!

So far, I had felt really slow on the climbs. Every time I tried to up the pace, I got dizzy and sick. On the plus side, I felt strong on the downhills. Totally opposite to every other race I’ve done. I really thought I wasn’t racing well but I knew I was moving at the best pace available, so that was all I could do.

At the next aid station (Lac Combal 65.6km) I was unsure of where I was. My horrific French did nothing to clear it up as I asked a volunteer ‘Ou eh?’ (Apparently that is not French for ‘Where are we?’) I saw a girl that was a doppelganger for Amy Sproston (very good US runner for my non-running friends). It took me finding her again an hour later to realise it actually was Amy! This was the first time it occurred to me that it might not be going as bad as I thought it was.

Down we went to Courmayer (78.4km) and the sky was starting to lighten. I felt like I was coming out of some surreal nightmare where we just went up into the blizzard over and over again. Into to the aid station and I told Mum I am not climbing well but I am A-ok (sort of a win for being positive in Aid #2). Second Major Mistake – I needed to try to eat more here. I’ve had such a bad time with puking in races that I am wary of too much food but I did not appreciate how far off the nutrition wagon I had fallen overnight. (Photo below of aid station chaos!)

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Off I trotted to the next climb and 20mins in, I realised I was in real trouble. People started passing me (including Amy) and I was staggering. I popped Glucodin like a drug addict and decided no matter what, I was having soup at the next aid station. I finally dragged my arse up to Bertone (83.2km) and… it’s one of the only aid stations without soup πŸ™‚

The next section was not my best effort. It was runnable but I struggled to get myself moving. I think there’s supposed to be a great view of Mont Blanc here. I saw a nice white cloud! Into the next aid station (Bonatti 90.6km) and soup!!! I didn’t even care if I puked it all back up in 10mins. Luckily it stayed down and 15mins later I was back from the living dead.

New rule was put in place. Soup at every aid station from here to finish, even if it resulted in puking.

The heavens opened…again. The next aid station, Arnouvaz (95.6km) looked like a war zone. The volunteers were making everyone put on all spare clothes. I got into my Bonatti rain pantsβ€”a heaven sent piece of clothing. I argued with a volunteer about putting my thermal on. The shirt, sleeves, safety blanket and rain jacket were working well and I wanted to get out of there because you could sense the panic within the tent. I just had to get over the monster Grand Col Ferret and the biggest pass would be done. I left and passed 2 poor camera guys out there lying in the rain. I couldn’t help laughing with them at the weather situation. I had the better deal; at least I was moving! 1hr33min later I hit the top of the ‘Bastard Ferret’ (did a bit of renaming on the climb!).

Side Note – I thought of my Mum over the ‘Bastard Ferret’. She has hiked the Mont Blanc circuit. I know she is tough, but I kept thinking, did she really go this way? This climb is ridiculous!

The only time I ever looked at my watch was at Arnouvaz. I saw that it was 95km and I looked again at the top of the Ferret. I was so demoralised that a 5km ParkRun had just taken so freaking long that I pulled my sleeve down and returned to the ‘No looking at the watch’ rule for the rest of the race!

 

Rocco Smit took these photos at the top of Grand Col Ferret.

Coming down the other side took a really long time. I felt good, bad, indifferent and good again. I saw a tent and heard cow bells but it was just a dairy. No aid station love for you! I found Sally McRae (another famous US runner) on my way into La Fouly (109.6km) and she was super lovely. We left La Fouly together and the down continued but now we were on a road. UGH…I hate road!

In attempt to get it over with, I started putting the foot down and it actually felt good to be moving at a reasonable pace again. I was headed to see Mum for the 3rd time and I was tired but still moving well.

Into Champex Lac (123.1km) and it started raining (surprise, surprise) pretty hard. I think I told Mum I was ok (I’m counting it as a win for Positive Aid station #3 because I can’t remember it!).

I had learned my lesson and had 2 rain jackets on as I set off to conquer the first of the final 3 climbs. I look like a gnome in the photos. This ultra gig is not glamorous.

I set a goal of getting to Trient to see Mum again before it got dark. It was all going swimmingly until I hit the first up. I felt like I was moving underwater and the nice old US man from Oregon that I had joined, left me like I was standing still. This felt like the steepest climb on the whole course, although that might just have been in my head.

I have no idea where this picture was taken! Let me know if you recognise it πŸ™‚

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Down we went and I was still running ok. There was a sneaky bit where I saw spectators and heard fast cow bells (you can tell if it is a cow or person depending on the speed of the bell!) and then we went back into the forest. WTF…..wrong town….obviously we had hit Trient Heights and had more bloody descending to do.

Into Trient (139.5km) and I told Mum, I don’t know how I’m going to climb 2 more mountains (Positive Talk Aid Station #4 Fail!). She helpfully told me that right now, I only had to climb 1 mountain. And she was right. All that was required was getting to the next aid station.

Into the dusk I went. I didn’t want to turn my headtorch on because I didn’t want to acknowledge that I was into night 2. Eventually I tripped enough to concede the time had come.

An English girl caught me and started to chat. I’m sure she was very nice but I find it really hard to talk (I hear you laughing hysterically) in a race. I was so far into the pain cave that I needed to spend all available energy on moving forward. Splitting my focus was making me angry at her and wasting my energy. I pulled aside and told her to go ahead. Don’t worry, I repaired Australian/UK relations later in the race when I saw her again!

The next section was something I’d rather never repeat. The wheels came off and the steering wheel was not attached. It was sleeting, very cold, super muddy and slippery. I totally lost the will to move forward at my best pace possible. Sally caught me again and kindly said the down was coming soon. I let her run off into the night and didn’t even try to stay with her. It was definitely not a butterflies and roses time.

I decided that I needed a plan for the last aid station where I would see Mum. I knew I was in a world of trouble and started making a list. 1. I would change my shirt (Mum had been offering her hot pink long sleeve for the last 2 aid stations but I hadn’t listened); 2. I would soup it up; 3. I would walk my arse out of there. Having a plan made me feel more in control of the disaster that was unfolding and I slid my way down the mountain to the town.

Coming into the aid station (Vallorcine 149.7km) I heard this voice yelling ‘Brook’. My beautiful friend Nicki, who I lived with eons ago in Whistler, was standing in the rainy dark. It was the most awesome thing. I told Mum the wheels had come off but I was headed home now. She gave me the life-saving hot pink top, soup and I walked out. I told Nicki to not come to the finish because it could take me 5hrs to do the next 18km. She said no worries, I’ll be there and I thought, crap, I better run so I don’t keep her waiting ;). (Counting Aid Station #5 Positive Talk as a Tie)

The policy of always smiling for photos was severely tested here!

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Next big lesson was learned along here. Caffeine tablets are getting added to the arsenal. I was following a river and I think it was around 10pm. I stumbled, shook my head and had no idea why I was wearing running clothes! I realised I was closing my eyes and sleeping. Out came the Coke and caffeine shot blocks. 10mins later I was back on track.

The bit I am most happy with came next. God only knows how it happened, but I came good. I got behind a British guy who was passing people and I never let his shoes leave my pool of light. We picked up people and then we found Sally again. The last sections were a re-route and very technical. The last climb went into a huge fog. It was the only time I felt worried about losing the path as we were on a big open ski field and you couldn’t see the reflective tags unless your head torch caught them just right. I realised Sally had dropped back as I came through the last aid station and there was only 8km to go.

I started shuffling down (your quads take a while to work after climbing for an hour) and I REALLY needed to pee. Of course, I am now on a single track on a steep hill and have no option other than to go full Euro and pee on the side of the track, hoping that Sally or some French guy doesn’t come charging down while I flash them. Fastest pee ever recorded!

The last 8km actually felt fast (thanks to Al Higgins who has helped me improve my leg strength). By the bottom I was running the fastest I’ve ever finished an ultra (in my head at least!). Into the streets of Chamonix and it was quiet and dark (it was 2.30am!) until the last stretch. Then there was a lovely American couple that I met at breakfast yelling ‘Go Brook from Australia’, a lot of very drunk people cheering like their lives depended on it and Mum and Nicki! Best finish ever.

31hrs 57min. Was pretty stoked to pull off 23rd female and 205th overall. I think there were around 2500 starters and 1637 finishers.

If you made it to here, congratulations, you have the tenacity required to run ultras πŸ˜‰

To Mum, words can’t express how much I appreciate your help and genetics.

To my brave and looney friends who toed the line, let’s not do that again any time soon.

And to the most amazing crew of friends and family who watched me on the app and live cameras, cheering me on. Thank you. You’re the best.

Photo below with mad Aussies at UTMB and my best mate Kilian πŸ˜‰

Gear Used – mostly for me to remember because I bet I’ll want to have another crack one day πŸ˜‰

Salomon Ultra Sense shoes, Hilly socks, Dirty Girl gaiters, knee length tights, Salomon Bonatti rain pants.

NF sleeves, Raidlight jacket, OR jacket, fleece gloves/mitts, Raidlight over mitts, Icebreaker thermal.

Find Your Feet headband, Trailblazer buff, Icebreaker beanie, Black Diamond Carbon poles, Petzl Nao, Black Diamond head torch and eLite (so I could leave the Nao with Mum during the day).

Shotz gels, Shotz electrolyte, Shot Blocks, Glucodin, Salt Sticks, chicken broth, watermelon, 2 cookies.

 

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