Fighting The Bear! UTMB 2016 part 1

The bucket list is an overused way to describe things that people really want to do but just aren’t going to get their shit together to do any time soon. So it’s appropriate to say that UTMB was a bucket list race for me. I’d seen the videos of Scott Jurek and Anton Krupicka and Marco Olmo all being handed their asses in various ways by this course, seen Krissy Moehl’s TED talk — essential viewing by the way — have a load of friends who have taken it on with varying degrees of success, and had the very special opportunity last year to go on the Ultra-Trail World Tour’s VIP tour of the course as the race was in progress, thanks to being support staff attached to Ultra-Trail Australia.

So when the unexpected opportunity to enter the world’s biggest 100-miler came along, and all I needed to do was bag the final eligibility points needed for qualification, the renovation of the comfort zone — an almost neverending pet project — stepped up a level.

Yes, this is not a trade show, this is actually a start line.

Part of the appeal of any race is its assurance of difficulty. With a typical completion rate of barely 60%, even with around 2,500 starters, UTMB had already met the necessary probability of struggle. The circus at the starting line would not usually be something I’d seek out, but it’s a special and overwhelming feeling of being one highly charged molecule buzzing and oscillating within a zapping and electrified global forcefield of trailrunners. As the drones and helicopters hover overhead, the emotions are raw and almost overpowering, and I’d expect that the starting line of Kona and the opening ceremony at any Olympics feel very similar.

The start is counted down and for all of the non-elites bunched behind the animal speedsters there’s a walk out across the line while the town and visitors and friends and runners from the other races during the week all line the street, 6–10 deep. For a moment we get to a jog then back to a walk, but for most of us it’s a happy and excited walk. Some runners, most especially the Aldi Antons (not quite the real Antons — beards too scrappy, brands not matched, shirts on, probably not world class athletes either) are impatient to go and push through the bottle neck, but this is an experience to soak up — cheers, applause, whoops of joy, trembling anticipation, kids with hands out for high 5s on a day that will surely be a formative memory as they go on to not turn into couch potatoes.

a random meeting with a Jean-Charles Vauthier, a French type 1 ultra runner on the first road out of town. Nice packs hey?

Having seen the start last year, I knew how crowded the spectators and runners were around the famous arch, but I’d had no idea how long the cheering crowds went on. Maybe half a kilometre along I got a cheer from the French HOKA boys, almost 800 metres along, Paul Charteris, Tarawera Race Director, towered above the crowd with his massive grin and happy voice, even further along, Kaburaki from Ultra-Trail Mount Fuji for another quick high five, and still the streets were packed, with runners up the middle and supporters on the side. It’s just not what you’re used to from trailrunning or ultra.

I’m also not used to running a flat 8km start feeling like we’re already 40km in. This first section was easy, with a late climb and quick descent to the 21km checkpoint and first cutoff (4 hours) of St. Gervais. Even on the relatively flat first part of the climb, my walking heartrate was 170. I partially bought into the data panic, while at the same time telling myself that it was wrong, and that even if it wasn’t wrong it didn’t matter because there was nothing to do about it.

the superb sunset view back up the valley from the first busted oversweating loser sit-down point halfway up the first tiny climb.

St Gervais was smooth enough. Got in about 20 minutes before cutoff and had a quick chat with the compere.

“So, you’re from Australia? It must be winter there right now?”

“Yep, so we’re having 30 degree days just like you guys.”

Smartass.

Would have got out a lot quicker if my newly bought Hydrapak bladder wasn’t an evil piece of crap. Seriously, it’s a plastic sack that water goes in, with a bit that slides to close the top. For some reason, though, somebody thought it would be a good idea to make one that barely slides shut and then refuses to slide open. Even a burly volunteer couldn’t work it. Whatever. Soup, cola, head out with cup and bowl to mouth.

Last year we’d headed out of town chasing the leaders in the pre-dusk flare of daylight to crowds swinging racks of cowbells. I was winding up the hill between the satisfied pavement crowds of diners deciding between coffee and cocktails. But here was a quick highlight — a little tri-colour bull terrier was wedged in amongst the feet of friends and owners. A quick hello, a pat, and the hilariously rowdy British owner suggested I pick him up for a photo, even as his partner told him to leave the runner alone. So of course I picked him up. If you don’t have the energy to cuddle a bull terrier, you’re probably not going to do much better trying to run another 150km.

“Bon appétit” echoed the diners’ possibly sarcastic but definitely friendly calls as we headed away from town, through the French HOKA team and their improvised shoe count, and up into the trails again.

Next stop was Contamine. Here’s a special thing about language — when you grab water from a checkpoint in a town that has a slightly toilety smell and it tastes frickin weird, you begin to think about how Contamine is really close to ‘contaminated’, and add that to the list of things you’re dealing with. That is, at least, until way later when you try the on-course sports hydration and realise it tastes exactly the same as that strange water you stopped drinking…

The first proper climb was a nice long one, topping out near 2500m and spreading 1500m of climb over about 15km. As we wound our way through the 40km mark and toward Croix du Bonhomme, I was still just thinking about the next cutoff.

The plan had simplified radically. It had started out something along the lines of “Get to Courmayeur by 10am Saturday, sort my shit out, feel good, start to make up ground”. In the preceding 6 hours that had been replaced by “Get to the next checkpoint, don’t think about Courmayeur too much just yet, don’t miss the next cutoff, how high does this one go, what time is cutoff, get to the next checkpoint before cutoff”.

Things had got decidedly small picture, but in that way they were actually quite big picture — blow this stage, fail the whole race, feel life suck.

And this is where we should probably talk about the bear.

The bear is real, man. #metaphor

While the months of training leading up to this year’s race had some pretty patchy moments, all the big boxes got ticked. Increasing mileage, training on tired legs, countdown clock being updated weekly, multiple reps of steep things, accumulation of hurty downhills, rarely disappointing coach Andy with a dotball week, and a final loading session in the Victorian Alps putting away about 120km with 7200m over 4 days that left me feeling not just confident of completion a month out, but even beginning to have those finish time fantasies runners can allow themselves when they’ve really decided to not just leave things to luck. I’d even totally nailed down which combination of jocks and shorts would cause zero chafing, rain or shine.

So it was a very harsh crashing to earth when 4 days of being coughed and sneezed on by contagious Sydney at the City2Surf Expo left me with what felt like Ebola but based on a friend’s diagnosis was more like Swine Flu, now called Influenza A to avoid offending bacon farmers. On the flight over, I felt like Patient Zero. While friends back home wrote of their jealousy at my being in Annecy, the summer capital of French holidaying, I was flat on my back in the final throes of a fever and nearly choking to death on phlegmballs the size of a baby possum. Sunday afternoon, 5 days out, I was staring at a ceiling, feeling as fresh and lively as a used condom, and thinking that this wasn’t even going to be a DNF, but a DNS.

The whole time I was smashing Zinc, ridiculous amounts of vitamin C, spirulina, Berocca, women’s Ulti-Vite, pretty much anything I could get my hands on that might turn the fight around. Some French pharmaceutical MucoMyst with the added bonus of triggering a particular endurance hormone seemed to be the game changer. But I went to the starting line on Friday feeling depleted, and that this 170km run around the base of Europe’s highest summit was going to be a more uphill battle than the 10,000m of ascent could quantify.

So yes, there was going to be a bear fight. UTMB is a challenging route that can’t be disrespected, moreso than most other 100-milers. But a few very close friends and family knew how ragged I was on approach, and that was the bear that I expected to put up a bigger and uglier play for supremacy over the weekend.

What little sense of inevitability I had about Courmayeur, the 78km mark and notional halfway mark of the race, it was already attached to a thought of failure, and thought of failure was rationalised by excuse, and the excuse was that I felt like total crap because of circumstances beyond my control.

No matter how I thought about things or bitesized the challenge I was already getting deeper into, the future felt like doom. So I changed the script. Tramping through the middle of dusty nowhere in a conga line of lycra zombies, I took ownership of my process.

I’ve only just noticed that Hugh Glass is kind of close to Hugh Jass, but this quote still worked for me the whole way through the race.

And this is the beauty of the bear. If you have to fight a bear, it is unlikely that it will be by choice. It might be under deeply unfavourable circumstances. The bear might be a lot bigger than you’d possibly expected. And you sure as hell won’t be able to put off fighting the bear until a day when you’re fully ramped up for a bear fight. When it’s you versus bear, you can fight or fail. There is no other option and all other detail is irrelevant. There was a reason I’d watched The Revenant for the 3rd time on the flight over.

“I don’t know if I’m gonna get through this but who could expect me to, knowing how sick I’ve been and what it’s done to me.”

That unhelpful rationalisation had to go. The alternative?

“Seriously, anyone can do a 100-miler when they’re feeling good. Who cares? But doing a 100-miler when you’re a total trainwreck? That’s solid! This’ll be awesome.”

Sounds perky, but it didn’t feel that way. It felt like a half-assed bid at survival.

It was enough, though, to begin a change of mind. Climbing gradually in open higher country through the black tar of night, what seemed like thousands of headtorches zigged and zagged in front of me, a continuous line maybe 3 km long of human-borne incandescence. It looked like a giant shimmering electric snake. It made me think of the Rainbow Serpent, a quintessentially pre-Australian native. Below all of those bright torches, I knew there were hundreds of runners in multi-coloured lycra, which further supported a metaphor that could probably do nothing other than irritate indigenous friends if I suggested it.

Big open air aid station, fresh water, mineral water, Coke, onward and upward. There’s a rhythm to mountain races which a friend clarified to me prior to Tor Des Geants last year.

“The climb will start and it will get steep. Then it will get even steeper. Then it will get really very steep, and then you are at the top.”

As long as you know this is what to expect, you won’t be faced by too many surprises on your way to ultra glory.

Sitting is also permitted. By this point I was breaking every climb with a trailside breather. Ass planted firmly in a rock garden, staring back kilometres toward the aid station with my back to the climb still remaining, I was almost immediately joined by someone worse off than me. An Asian runner spread himself on the ground on all fours and threw up loudly before looking around bewildered, as if wondering how he’d come to be in Hell. In significantly less crowded races, the next runner would have stopped, checked if he was ok or needed help, and then maybe sent for someone. But here, there was no point. There was an endless stream of people going past like a dirt escalator, and what was he going to answer to the question, “Are you ok?”.

“No. No, not ok.”

“Well what’s wrong?”

“Hot, dehydrated, feel awful, 40km down, 130km to go, still got to get over this hill, it’s my playtime.”

Throwing up a lung or a kidney — now THAT would be an emergency warranting greater attention. This was just someone loosing their biscuits before we’d even made it to marathon distance, and there was going to be a lot more of that before this was over.

I got up and rejoined the zombie horde.

The next descent turned back upward at Les Chapieux, 49km so a nice psychological line in the sand. 1554m above sea level and the gateway to another climb to 2500m, it was a place to begin the next helpful pattern of thinking. This was just a Kedumba, our sustained hill of choice back in Sydney’s Blue Mountains. Strictly speaking, Kedumba is a 1,000m climb over 10km, topping out at about 1,100m. So this wasn’t exactly a Kedumba, but that wasn’t really the point. The body had to get this done, and it was going to be a lot harder with unhappy passengers complaining about the likely effects of altitude.

The 30km to Courmayeur was also still too long to think about, but now there were two mountain tops each within a 15km stretch to simply get through. Bonus points go to the reader who can remember what glacial valley I was in when I threw up just after sunrise. Everything was very sound of music, green, lush, or made entirely of wood. Heading across a suspended valley toward an ice crossing, a coughing fit escalated until it took all my fluids from the last hour with it. Leaning on my poles, dry heaving, it was actually comforting that nobody stopped to ask anything. As previously discussed, what is there to say? 110km to go.

Mountains are awesome. Deal with it.

At least the next climb would lead to the Courmayeur descent. This was going to potentially be a great relief. While 800m within 4km is a brutal gradient, at least it was downhill, so the thinking went. Of course the adventure wasn’t all regurgitation, dust and pain. Clouds boiling off the valley around summits below us made for a spectacular sunrise. Descending into Lac Combal with razor jagged and impossibly steep ridgelines in every direction was invigorating. The sense that we were like some deranged but happy mass pilgrimage was real and reassuring. But by the time I began the sharp rolldown to Courmayeur, I just could not give a shit for all this beauty, because my world was crumbling.

This was going to be the one place that I would connect with my dropbag, the major halfway point where I’d figured I’d be coming in 2–3 hours under cutoff and therefore have some time to rest if it felt needed. But with my guts now feeling like heavily malleted hamburger meat, I was descending at about the same pace as I would hike flat ground, and there was nothing to do about picking up the pace. Any ugly attempt at a trot or jog was immediately punished with a kick to the stomach. As what felt like every other runner either overtook me or sat on my shoulder until I pulled even further to one side so they could go past, I just felt time turning to cement.

Andy was echoing in my head, “If you can’t run the downhills, it’s going to be a long day.” Thanks Obi Wan, loud and clear bro.

Instead of getting into Courmayeur with an hour and a half or even half an hour to spare, I arrived at the sports centre at ten minutes to one, 25 minutes to doom and still not fully halfway through. The weight of what was going on really hit me. I had had the idea that getting to Courmayeur would be some kind of achievement, that I could fail here with some dignity still intact if it came to that, but there’s no shine to a DNF at all. Even if you break bones on a run, getting to the finish line is always going to be a more joyous outcome if it’s on feet rather than in a friend’s car.

Friends, family, work, my own expectations — massive disappointment was brewing. There was nothing salvageable at this point. Everything turned to shit and there was no sprinkling gold dust on it. Shit is shit is shit.

As we were funnelled into the alleyway where the dropbags hung in multiple rows, volunteers called out our numbers so that other helpers down the line could pull them out and have them ready for us. I had my sunglasses on, visor pulled down, and stared hard at the ground with one foot barely in front of the other. This felt like death. My bag felt like cruel weight. Rounding the corner toward the front entrance of the checkpoint I completely choked, I couldn’t inhale, I just made mouth motions like a fish thrown on land. The furthest each breath could travel was perhaps halfway down my neck and nowhere near my chest.

You could almost see the kids still lining the entry chute decide not to offer high 5s. This was the walking dead. Cheers for a corpse are a waste of effort.

Getting into the front entrance there was a mass of bodies in every direction. A volunteer asked if I had support. No. Solo runners needed to go upstairs she told me. I really didn’t know what I was doing. I felt like I was about to fold completely. And then she had a conversation with someone else for what felt like forever. I turned away to go find these awesome stairs. Such a great idea, stairs. And so glad that people were coming downstairs on the side that I was trying to go up. That’s cool though, I’ll just lean against the wall here like a stain.

Getting into the main hall wasn’t much more clarifying. The cluster on the far side around the food prep area looked like a nightmare, so I just headed for an empty seat at one of the dozens of large round tables that filled the room and collapsed into it. Clearly the death was visible because a volunteer intercepted me along the way and asked if I needed any help. I probably spoke in babelfish but she sent someone else over and together we decided I should have tomato pasta and Coke. The only other person sitting at the table looked at me quizzically, as if wondering what I was doing, now with less than 15 minutes to cutoff. I just spooned pasta and sipped Coke and rummaged aimlessly in my dropbag.

I didn’t grab the spare torch batteries for another night. I didn’t put on the sunscreen for reduced damage on the battlefield. I didn’t grab clean dry socks. I almost didn’t even grab extra soft flasks of Tailwind. But I did grab a snaplok bag of spirulina and vitamins because I figured there might be some point I could think about putting it down without throwing up.

The huge room was mostly emptying. Some runners looked shellshocked, as though they knew this was it for them. But one guy in particular grabbed my attention. A little Italian runner had clearly decided to pull. With his socks and shoes off, he sat happily smashing his second bowl of pasta, oblivious to the dismay around him. He was happy, his pain was ended. So I latched on to that, and I viewed it as cowardly, and I rejected it. A very helpful volunteer came over to my shoulder again to see if I needed anything and to remind me that cutoff was less than ten minutes away.

“What do you think you will do?” she asked in English that was still a lot smoother than most of my French.

“I’m not going to kill myself here, you guys are going to have to come kill me out there.”

She smiled and said, “This is good idea you have, I like your idea.”

Feeling slightly less devastated than barely 20 minutes before I headed out of the hall with my dropbag, wondering what to do with it. I passed the table where runners were officially quitting, their race bibs being taken off and the chips being cut from their bags. Devastation. I handed mine on to the guy outside who was handling things for continuing runners and went down the ramp and back into battle. This life seemed almost over but at least I wasn’t quitting. (to be continued…. obviously….)

Part 2 continues ….

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