This race report nearly didn’t get written, but it seems a little cowardly to only write one if it all went the way I wanted, so here is the train wreck account 😉
Having waited 4 years to get back to UTMB (between missing lottery entries and Covid), I felt privileged and excited to be back in Chamonix. Due to race cancellations and some poorly timed illness, I was short on lead in races, but Coach Scotty Hawker had me feeling ready. In fact, it was the most fit I’ve felt in years. A great combo of back to back missions, hill strides and lots of Whistler, Canada vertical, gave me confidence that no stone had been left unturned.
Race week arrived and I met Support Crew Champion (a.k.a. Mum) in Geneva airport. The usual hype of UTMB week followed and I was careful to not expend energy as we did some sightseeing. The vibe in the the town in UTMB week, truly has to be experience to be believed. You could power a small nation from the energy on the streets.
Here’s some photos from restful sightseeing week!
It was brilliant catching up with both Coach Scotty Hawker and the UTMB ‘girls’; Tanya, Tash, Karen, Emma, Erika. I’ve run with these incredible women for years now and it was pretty fantastical that we were all finally in France together. Tanya was running OCC and the rest of us were in for the big loop.
Thursday was WARM and I thought of Tanya as we tracked her through the day on the OCC. She was beating all expected times and it was inspiring to have her kick off the event in style. We got our bibs together and only 3 out of 5 of us asked the volunteers to move our attached pack tags a couple times to make sure they were just right. The poor French guy shook his head and mumbled something about indecisive femmes!
That evening, Mum and I saw Tanya run past our hotel towards the finish looking super perky. My cheering woke the neighbours.
Friday race day….it’s a lot of hurry up and wait for the 6pm start. Tried to sleep and avoid panic repacking. The were only 6 re-packs…counting that as a win!
The Start. It’s crazy when you see it on video. Live, it’s absolutely surreal. The French really know how to hype a crowd. Our pack of 5 girls hung onto each other to stay upright in the mosh pit. Then the surge and you have to go with the flow of 2627 weeping, nervous, mad people.
Along the rolling double track to Les Houches I felt relatively calm and relaxed. It was very humid and I felt like a human MasterChef sous vide.
Up the first climb and barely 10 minutes in my breathing and heart rate suddenly felt out of control. Hike slower and relax I thought.
Then the hot and faint feeling took over and I had to sit before I fell. I tried to get my head down and listed to the side in a ditch. As hundreds of runners passed by asking ‘Ca va?’, I could only put my thumbs up and say ‘Ok’.
12km into 172km race, this was very, very far from OK. I got up after a couple minutes and started trying to problem-solve. Try a gel, reduce the pace, breathe slower. There was another 4 sit-downs up that first climb. I saw a concerned Karen and Tash who I had to chase away with a firm “I’m totally fine”.
Finally crested Mt Delevret and I got into a shuffle rhythm down the other side. 5 minutes into the descent and my tummy contents returned to terra ferma in spectacular fashion. But honestly, that was way less concerning that that light-headed feeling of being on the verge of fainting.
I struggled on, trying to focus on getting to Mum at Les Contamines (31km). Erika came past me and I failed miserably to be upbeat. I did tell her it got easier ahead, but I think that was as much for my benefit as hers!
From the comfort of the couch, you have all these ideas of how you will bravely combat challenges and maintain a positive mindset. Putting that into practise is a whole different story.
Finally Les Contamines and I told Mum there was something very wrong. She got me food, switched my water bottles. I told her I didn’t know how I would get over the mountains to Courmayer. Thank goodness, she just replied that I was going to get cut off in 15 minutes and I needed to move. “Think loose fast hiking and get in a flow” she said. It was exactly what I needed to hear. I’m so grateful she only talked as if it was a given that I was leaving the aid station.
Off I went and kept “loose, fast hiking” in my head. And it actually worked. I started feeling less zombie. Through this amazing light/music show that Hoka had created in Notre Dame de la Gorge, I was back to actively focusing on appreciating things that I’d miss experiencing if I stopped.
Over towards Les Chapieux (50km). There was a heli-vac in progress in the dark. Things could always be worse. And then I saw a fellow Trailblazer (Jon from my running club) and jovially asked if we were having fun yet. Butterflies and freaking roses. The lights were back on!
Off up Col de la Siegne (one of the biggest climbs) and halfway up the wheels came off again in spectacular fashion. The climb nearly ended me. If I’d been anywhere close to civilisation I would have pulled the plug. I was hiking 2 switchbacks then sitting, puking and nearly fainting. Then I would get cold, so I’d get up and rinse and repeat.
I’d always thought the back of the pack must be a jolly, party bus. But it was so much more quiet than any other race I’ve done. Everyone was deeply in the hurt locker and had no spare energy to expend on idle chit-chat. There were friendly nods as you passed each other in various states of disaster, but oh so very, very quiet.
By the top I wanted to call Mum and tell her that I couldn’t get to Courmayer. But my phone was in the back of my pack and the effort to take it off was too overwhelming. I saw a sign that the next cut off time for Lac Combal was not far off. Between you and me, I hoped I’d be cut off and then somehow it wasn’t my fault that I had failed.
Then the crucible moment….Pyramides Calcaires. In my previous UTMBs this section had been cut out due to bad weather. I was acutely aware that I could DNF by going straight to the next aid station and miss a rocky 3km climb.
The junction came… I joined the little line of hopeless souls crawling upwards. Maybe I would still be in luck and be cut off? Once I crested that rocky bull-s@#t (which on any other day would have been joyful Heidi-singing scenery), something switched in my mindset. I had invested enough now, to do everything I could to finish.
Massive miscalculation meant I was in a long underwear top with no hat and sunnies and it was hot! It had never occurred to me that I’d be out in the sun for so long before getting to Courmayer. Kept thinking of the Icebreaker slogan that merino wool breathes so well. My crockpot resemblance disagreed!
Into Courmayer and I told Mum, ‘don’t know if I can stay in front of cut offs but I’m going to try’. It was hot and many hours later than I’ve ever been at Courmayer before. I asked Mum where the other girls were hoping one might be close enough to catch, but apparently Tash and Karen were well ahead. The climb out of Courmayer to Bertone was baking hot but thankfully I was out of the breathable thermal! An encouraging French man told me ‘no, no, no sit’ every time he saw me heading for the edge of the trail on the climb which kept me entertained and moving.
Over to Bonatti, I was aboard a little train of guys that were trotting with serious purpose. I was scared of the Bastard Ferret (aka Grand Col Ferret) climb that was coming and was trying hard to build some cushion from the cutoffs. As I crawled up to to Bonatti I heard “BROOOOOOK!”
Oh My Goodness. Tash and Karen were looking over the edge down the track at me.
I’ve never been so happy to see these 2 incredible women. Both had significant injuries coming into the event and it was amazing that they even got to the start line. I got a little teary telling them ‘I don’t know if I can finish’. They told me how we were going to look crossing the finish line. I was in middle, they were on each side holding their kids’ hands. Nothing like some positive forward planning.
Off we trundled and I suddenly felt way more confident that I might see Chamonix again in this lifetime.
The Bastard Ferret lived up to its moniker. Tash set a metronome pace that left no room for argument. I kept my head down and when she moved a shoe, so did I. Having company completely changed my mindset and I went from totally miserable to small moments of levity.
Down the other side and we were hustling to get to La Fouly before dark. Karen heard cheers, but it was a shepherd calling his goats. Then Tash heard cowbells, but it was cows going home for dinner. A very attractive French guy pulled me to my feet by my pack when I was fixing a shoe telling me not to quit (who am I to argue with an attractive French man)!
Karen had totally blown quad disasters on the downhill. Tash was struggling on the uphill. I was an all-round disaster. We were a match made in heaven!
Into La Fouly (113km) and there was my amazing mate Nicki who had waited all bloody day for me to show up. Our friend Tanya (crewing for Tash) was also there with her daughter Matisse and Tash’s daughter Harriet. I told the girls to never take up ultras as it’s a stupid sport. They giggled and assured me they wouldn’t. It’s truly the most uplifting thing to see friends out selflessly supporting you when you are having such a rough time.
Off into the night and Karen and I were excited to see our Support Crews at the next aid station. Tash decided to join the Pukey Pukerson train and I didn’t feel special anymore.
I’d been holding steady in the roller coaster of feelings but the climb up to Champex Lac plunged me back into trouble. I was sick and dizzy and told the girls I was going to need a 5 min nap at next aid station. Into Champex Lac and I was so, so happy to see Mum. A lovely French lady put a blanket over my head as I laid down. I was out immediately and then Tanya was shaking me awake with a cheeky ‘Good morning’. We slept 5 minutes and I felt like a new woman, although the photos indicate otherwise!
The photos below are from Champex Lac where Mum, Tanya, Jarlath, Matisse and Harriet had to wait for half a century for us to roll in.
Now we were starting to watch the cut offs closely. We set off to Trient and we had 1.5 hours of cushion. Knowing the 3 kick-in-the-pants climbs that were coming I thought we would need it.
I’d had a caffeine tablet at Champex Lac. VERY poor life decision. The previous cure to puking (no fluid or nutrition for a couple hours) was not a great long term strategy, but it did give me a couple hours reprieve. Once the soup and drinking restarted…..
Up to La Giete and Tash and I had a wonderful bonding moment puking in tandem. Such a glamorous sport. Through the night air we could hear a rave going on in the mountains. Into the smelly cow shed/rave party/aid station. We were in the witching hours of the second night. Who wouldn’t want to see a 3am cow shed party!
Steep descent to Trient and poor Karen and her quads switched places in the hurt locker with Tash and me. There was mention from Karen that the finisher gilet better be made out of solid bloody gold.
The sun had risen (again!) and I was scared of the next cut off. We were 1 hour ahead at Trient but all in various states of disrepair. Mum and Tanya had teamed up and knew to hustle us out of there. Nicki had slept in her car all night to come meet me again (crazy woman I am so grateful to call friend). I assured Harriet and Matisse they should still not consider taking up running.
Karen went ahead on the climb so she could have more time downhill. Tash and I trudged with vigour in between Tash’s puke sessions (I was actually ok and it was Tash’s turn to shine). We shuffled hard downhill to catch Karen who had crushed the climb up. We re-passed a couple guys who were throughly impressed with Tash’s Puke Princess to Power Descender transition.
Into Vallorcine (153km) and we were on a mission. One big climb to go and spirits were high! I did remind the Matisse and Harriet, to take up any sport except running.
18km to go. As we left Tanya said, “when you think you are at the top of the last climb, there’s a bit more to go”. Both years I’d done previously, the course had missed the famed Tete aux Vents climb due to landslide and lightning, so it was going to be a fun surprise! We shuffled along the shaded river as fast as possible and then crossed to the baking hot side of the valley. Tash looked up and may have utter some unladylike words. The switchbacks of ant-people went as far as we could see.
Off we set, trying to keep the heart rate in control and stops to a minimum. There was very little shade but the higher we climbed, the better the breeze. On and on and on it went. The climb that wouldn’t end. But then the top. Don’t celebrate yet I told Tash, I’m sure it’s a trick! Then more climbing. A second top. But I was not going to be fooled again. A third top and finally I knew where we were. Just a little traverse and descent from Chamonix.
As we neared Flegere (the last aid station) we heard yelling and Emma had come out to cheer us on. She’d been really unwell and had to stop early on. Having spent so many hours calculating cut offs we were all nervous of making the finish but Emma was confident. Then Erika popped up also showing support, despite having a tough time and not finishing. These girls are all class.
Down into that valley and I can honestly say the finish line was pretty emotional. It was the most hard-fought finish I’ve had. For all the disappointment of a race result that was many hours worse that my previous results, I am deeply grateful to Mum, Tash, Karen and Tanya for getting me to that finish line.
45hrs24min. 112th female. 1604 overall.
In all honesty, I’m not sure what went wrong. Maybe altitude. Maybe blood pressure issues. Maybe too much fluid early on. If the outcome was certain, the sport would be boring.
I was joking with Karen and Tash that I was quitting ultras after this and honestly a lot of UTMB was properly unpleasant. But at the end of the day, I am deeply grateful for the experience, especially getting to cross that finish line sandwiched between a couple wonder women.
Here’s to hoping the next race goes a little more smoothly!