I could start talking about all the training and sacrifices yada, yada, yada – but if you’re reading this you’ve probably heard all about it, so let’s get straight into race day.
Race check in – not nervous at all
After arriving in Europe just 11 days before, I woke at 4:30am on race day. My body clock was still slightly out of whack, but much better than it had been the first few days after the change of time zones. If it had been the usual early morning start to the race, as we are accustomed to in the southern hemisphere, this would have been perfect, for a 6pm start it was not so great.
Most of the morning involved last minute race prep, scattered with distraction by watching carpool karaoke on YouTube, phone calls to family and the attempted at a nap. We also had a video call with the third member of my support crew, Marianna, who couldn’t be there in person to help Kirsten and Rebecca as originally planned.
Ready to fight
Reminders for when I forget
Around lunch time I was notified that the race organisers had called the cold weather mandatory gear, due to bad weather coming into the mountains. I wasn’t too phased by this as it was mostly stuff I carry when I’m in the mountains anyway, although I did revise my race outfit as a result.
Trying to calm the butterflies
Around 5pm we set off in the drizzle to the race start, runners had to be at the start line by 5:30pm. The streets were packed with supporters and runners alike. My two wonderful support crew came with me as I made my way around the back of the start line, trying to find a spot in the middle half of the pack. I was under strict instructions from my coach not to stand at the back of the start, as is my usual tactic. I was going to be under a lot of pressure to meet the first few cutoffs and I didn’t need the added pressure of being held up by other runners.
As we stood there, dealing with a last minute drama with my phone that saw me have a minor panic attack but was quickly dealt with by my crew, a fellow Aussie came up and introduced himself. We knew each other through social media and mutual friends, but had never actually met and it was rather astounding that we had ended up standing next to each other at such a packed start line. As my crew said their goodbyes and left, Dylan manouvered himself over to me (we were packed in like sardines) and talked me through what craziness would occur at the actual start, having run UTMB already the year before. We stood and soaked up the moment. If there is one thing the French know how to do, it is build the drama and atmosphere!
After the playing of the traditional UTMB song (I may have got something caught in my eye) there was a physical push and bunching up of the runners and then we were off! The start was frenetic and frantic to say the least, as 2000+ runners funnel through the start chute and onto the course. The streets of Chamonix are lined with supporters, 6 deep in places, all the way along to the first part of trail.
Race start from my crew’s perspective
My race plan was to go as hard as I could sustain for the first 50km and then see how I go from there. This was very uncomfortable, mentally and physically, because usually when you start such a long race, you start quite slow and try and keep that pace the whole way through. For me though, I needed to start hard as the cutoffs for the first few stations were a major concern. So, I ran, I tried to keep pace with those around me. As we ran through the streets of Chamonix it was start-stop as runners bottle necked in narrower sections, but I was grateful for this as it allowed me to get my breath under control. The cheering crowds were amazing, I have never and probably will never again experience such an exciting start. As the streets began to widen, I heard my name and for a split second saw my crew, but the pace was too quick for more than a glance. We soon hit the trail and I was glad of it, I felt myself relax and told myself to just keep pushing. To be honest, this race report is one of the hardest I’ve ever had to write because I was so focussed on moving quickly that it is all very much a blur. I don’t really remember much about the trail between Chamonix and Les Houches, except that it was muddy and very runnable. We soon popped out onto an over pass and this was the first chance I had to walk as we traversed uphill into the town. With the slower pace, people were able to read our bibs and as I passed I would get an “Allez, Allez Jo!” or “Go Australie!” and I would smile in thanks. As we went through the checkpoint in Les Houches, I didn’t stop. At 8km in I had no need and I knew time was crucial. Here we began our first climb, starting on road, which soon turned to a path winding its way up the hill under ski gondola lines. Locals were still out cheering, some with bowls of lollies and sandwiches, others with jugs of water for runners – I’ve never seen anything like it.
Somewhere between Les Houches and St Gervais
It was beginning to rain and about 3/4 from the top it began to get dark enough to pull out my headlamp. I stopped briefly then kept moving, my poles now also out, knowing I had a long night ahead.
The rain had made the dirt track quite slick and as we began to descend it was hard to find decent footing. I knew I needed to move quickly but was playing a balancing game of moving quickly enough but not wanting to risk an injury that would end my race. In the process I fell twice, the first was not too bad although it resulted in a nice thick coating of mud over my left leg, the second saw me elegantly twist 180 degrees and hit the ground with a resounding “FUCK!” but I was fine, straight back up and off again. We wound through the back streets of Saint Gervais and popped out into a slick and brightly lit square. I walked through and got my reusable cup filled with water and said “Merci” to the volunteer but kept moving, I would see my crew at the next stop.
The profile between St Gervais and Les Contamines looks like a couple of little bumps compared to the bigger climbs to come, however those short sharp climbs, in the dark on slick ground were a little wearing. I had purposely not taken notice of actual cut off times and was moving as quickly as possible. The fact that I still had plenty of people around me was heartening. We passed through farmland here and at one point we had pigs on our left and some awesome looking pumpkins and brassicas on our right, you could hear the people behind you call out in astonishment as their headlamps lit them up. After a few ups and downs, where I made sure to run everything that was either flattish or downhill, we popped out into the town, the shining pavement worrying me more than the muddy trail. Locals were still standing outside their houses to give us encouragement, which was happily received. We could hear the check point well before we saw it, the path seemed to wind past the sound and then back again. As we turned uphill I realized we were very close as the people grew in numbers and next I saw Becca, standing at the top of the pathway waiting for me. After a quick hug she told me to get inside to Kirsten who was waiting for me.
As part of UTMB you are only allowed one support crew member in the support tent, each runner is given a support crew ticket corresponding to each support point and the crew member is only allowed in 10 minutes before their runner is expected to arrive. No ticket – no entry. Inside the aid station tent it was full on. There were wall to wall people, I was unsure of how exactly I was meant to find Kirsten when I heard her calling my name and then saw her waving and jumping up and down. She quickly set to work, going through our practiced routine and checklist. The only thing we hadn’t counted on was that support crew don’t have access to water, so I had to go and fill my hydration bladder in the next tent. Seemingly as soon as I had arrived it was time to go. I tried to put on a brave face and so did Kirsten, as she sent me back out. We had kept our stop to 10min, I didn’t know it at the time but I had gotten out with only 12 minutes to spare. Becca met me as soon as I hit the barricade and walked with me, I was putting on my gloves as I walked and almost passed her one of my poles but then remembered outside the tent assistance wasn’t allowed. As we walked Becca told me our list of predetermined info that I would want – I had 8km to the next aid station, it was going to be very cold on top of the coming climb with below zero temps and winds and she would see me around lunch time at Courmayer. Feeling myself wanting to stay I told her to head back and tried to run. Winding again through the streets and reserves of Les Contamines, I was pleased to find I could run quite well and tried to force myself to run as much as possible, before the real climbing started. I had now been running in the dark for over 4hrs, I came up behind a fellow Aussie (every runner has two race bibs, one to wear on the front and one to wear on you pack – with your name and country on them) and said hi, then kept running along the road, trying to make the most of it.
After a good 4km of mostly runnable stuff we started to sharply climb. I had a guy from Portugal come up behind me and comment on me being an Aussie woman and that I had travelled so far to be here. We started chatting about where we were from, who we were here with (he had three friends doing UTMB and they were running together) and where we ran while training. We would leap frog each other for most of the climb to Col du Bonhomme, exchanging words each time we saw each other.
As we hit a more runnable section I began running and a woman I passed decided to keep pace with me, I picked a fence post in the distance, that seemed to be where it began to climb again, and decided I would run to there. As the woman, who was from Canada, dropped off before we got there I called out and told her to keep going, just a bit further, we could run to the climb. So, she did. She thanked me and we kept pace with each other, talking when we could. Chatting made the climb easier and before I knew it we were at La Balme. As my fellow runners pulled into the aid station I decided to keep moving, I had no need to go into the aid station and wanted to keep moving while I felt good. My coach, Matt, and I had worked on a strategy to talk to someone in each aid station, to get me out of my own head if I was stuck in a bad place, so as I passed through the timing point I thanked the volunteers for being there.
From La Balme the climb up to Col du Bonhomme was steep and rugged. I don’t really remember much detail about it except that it was raining, sometimes windy, sometimes foggy. There were sections of the trail that required us to boulder and climb, reminding me of Breast Hill back home, in New Zealand. There were big slabs of icy snow that we passed around and over and streams with slippery footings to be negotiated. I would look up and see head lamps through the mist ahead and think we must almost be at the top, only to find it was a false summit. Climbing still felt good, I wasn’t feeling sore in the legs and was eating and drinking really well but the continual darkness and waiting in line over the more technical sections was wearing thin at times.
As we passed through a timing point I took note of the elevation sign which also told us the cutoff for the next checkpoint. This cutoff was not in race time (that is, not in the hours and minutes we had been running) but in chronological time. Realising I had no idea how I was doing and whether I would make the cutoffs, I changed my watch over to chronological time which gave me something to shoot for. Soon after, the descent into Les Chapieux began and it was great! I had fun running down the mountain, picking my path and passing whenever I could, I also knew I was a bit ahead of the cutoff and making up some time so that buoyed me. As I came into the station and passed through the timing point I stopped. I hadn’t beeped – usually as you go through a point it beeps to say you registered. I yelled out to the guy monitoring the screen “Hey, I didn’t beep!” he looked up and laughed and told me I registered and to keep going. Laughing I made my way into the aid station. I had made it to the 50km checkpoint and I was ahead of the cutoff, I had been unsure I would make it this far, so that was a big relief.
Chatting to the volunteers at Les Chapieux
This is where I started to see carnage. We had been running for a little over 10hrs now, mostly in the dark. I grabbed a cup of water and walked through the tent. It was packed with people sitting staring or sleeping with their head in their hands. I stopped and leaned my poles up against the table so I could get out my rubbish and readjust some nutrition, then quickly moved to get out of there before getting too comfortable. I lined up to use the toilet and noticed the woman in front of me trying to eat a sandwich but shaking uncontrollably. I rubbed her arm and asked if she was ok? Did she need a hug or something to get warm. She thanked me and showed me she had a flask full of hot tea up against her chest and she was sure she would warm up soon. As soon as I used the toilet I headed out. I got about 300m down the road when I decided to stop and empty out my shoes, I hadn’t realized how full of dirt and stones they were. That done I started run/walking up the road and soon we ducked off onto a trail. I don’t remember much about the next few hours except it was dark and we were constantly climbing, I remember taking a caffeinated gel around 5am and reminding myself that the sun would be coming up soon, the tiredness was starting to creep in. As we reached the summit of Col de la Seigne it was beginning to lighten, I could make out the mountains and more of the path than just what my headlamp showed. It also began to snow. Big fat flakes started drifting down from the sky and as I wandered on I was struck by how magical it was, to be here, in Italy now, on top of a mountain, watching a sunrise while snowflakes fell around me. I was also glad the sun was coming as I hoped the tiredness I was feeling in my head would begin to lift.
After the race I would be told we went through some really tough weather and temperatures. I do remember it raining quite a lot and it was definitely very cold, particularly right before dawn, but other than getting very cold fingers, I was thankfully kept warm and dry and don’t really remember it being particularly trying. I think because I had so many bad weather runs in the lead up and I was so used to constantly monitoring and adjusting my gear, it just wasn’t a factor.
Sunrise coming down off Col de la Seigne
As the sun rose the views were just amazing and despite having promised myself I wouldn’t take any photos except for the sunrise on the second morning, I paused and took a photo – perhaps that’s when I jinxed myself.
We ran down into the valley and after a stop behind a rock to pee again (running downhill has that effect on my bladder), I realized we must be getting close to Lac Combal, the next cutoff point.
The cutoff was for 10am and by my estimates I would get there an hour ahead of that. I pushed on despite the tiredness, sure I would get my second wind soon. I came into the checkpoint over an hour and a half ahead of the cutoff. I did my usual routine, rubbish, water, get nutrition out and in a place easy to get to. Because of the tiredness I decided to eat an extra chocolate, then I got out of there. I walked and jogged down the road feeling ok and then we started up to Arete du Mont Favre. This is a comparatively short climb but it felt like it took forever. I wasn’t sure what was going on, my legs weren’t hurting on the climbs but I was feeling completely zapped of energy. Still I kept climbing, up through groups of cows with their bells softly tinkling as they moved. We could see the tent up ahead on the hill, marking the checkpoint, a beacon to keep moving and not stop. As I reached the top the woman at the checkpoint asked me to look behind and make way for the people lined up behind me. I must have looked crestfallen (I hate to hold people up) as the guy behind me told me I had dragged him up the hill and that it was ok. Shaken that I had not been aware of holding people up, I stepped aside and walked the start of the descent. I began running and would leapfrog people, frustratingly having to stop and walk as I was having trouble focusing. The tiredness was getting worse. As I got close to Col Checrouit, I began to see people lying in the sunshine sleeping, only one or two but they were there. It seemed I wasn’t the only one feeling tired. I decided to take a moment to gather myself and splash some water on my face in the hope I would wake up. It was just after 10:30am. As I left the Col Checrouit aid station, I knew things were unravelling. I was having trouble actually keeping my eyes open now and on top of that my quads were hurting on the downhills.
Leaving Col Checrouit aid station
I had taken a revvie (caffeine supplement) before the last aid station but it had done nothing. I messaged my crew and told them I needed to sleep at Courmayer. The descent took me forever. I was hurting but more than that, I didn’t trust myself to run as my eyes would roll into my head anytime I even blinked. I would run a couple of steps then walk, shake my head trying to wake myself and then repeat. As I came into Courmayer I could barely run the even road for fear of falling over, the only thing that kept me moving was knowing I would see my crew shortly and that I could nap.
Making my way through town to my crew at Courmayer
At Courmayer I grabbed my drop bag (this is the only spot you have a drop bag on the UTMB course) and was disheartened to see so few bags left on the racks. I quickly dismissed that, I wasn’t really racing anyone, I just wanted to finish. I was trying hard to stem the panic, I would feel better after this stop, I told myself. Inside Kirsten and I found a space and I quickly lay down whilst she organized things for my pack. I fell asleep but was soon awake again. I figured if I woke myself I was ready to go. I changed shoes and socks, popped a blister that was forming under a nail and busied myself getting ready. As I went to leave this was the closest I came to tears. Despite having stuck ridgidly to me nutrition plan I felt like shit, I was still tired and now I was scared, I knew I still had some big climbs ahead of me and I also knew that every time I climbed the tiredness felt worse.
As I left the hall, Bec was waiting for me and talked to me as I walked. I whinged about feeling so tired, but she would have none of it. So, off I hiked, trying to put on a brave face but all the time just wanting to close my eyes.
Looking as tired as I feel, leaving Courmayer
From Courmayer there is very bitey climb up to Refuge Bertone, it starts up a street that turns to dirt road and then to trail. Before I even hit the dirt road I was struggling to move my feet and I had begun weaving. Another runner, who I am sure meant to say something well meaning, came up beside me and told me I had to be strong, the second night is always harder – really not what I needed to hear. I was trying to focus on the trail, on my footsteps but all I could think about was sleep. As we hit the trail, people sat or lay on every switchback and I just wanted to join them. I messaged my crew
The climb was possibly the worst in my life. I dragged every step, constantly having to step off the path to be overtaken and feeling powerless to go any faster. My crew tried to prod me, my dear friend Maz, who had supported me at Alpine Challenge rang me to try and help but the tiredness was just overwhelming. I actually took my pack off at one point and went to lie down but realised that if I did that it was over, so I got back up and slowly dragged myself up to the Refuge. I was now mainlining chocolate along with all my usual nutrition in the hope it would somehow miraculously make the tiredness disappear. Despite moving so slowly and being constantly overtaken, I managed to make it to Refuge Bertone.
The end of the climb to Refuge Bertone, Courmayer in the valley below
At this aid station I decided to have a coke and then keep going. I haven’t had cola in a long time, and I hoped the combination of caffeine and sugar might help. As I went to leave, a volunteer informed us that as we popped over the ridge it would be very cold and windy. I had taken my jacket off during the climb up to the refuge, so this meant finding a spot to get it out and put it on. I did so reluctantly, as any time I wasn’t moving I had to fight harder to both stay awake and get going again, but within 5min of leaving I was glad I did.
The trail between Refuge Bertone and Refuge Bonatti was beautiful, more of a rolling single track with Mt Blanc across the valley on the left hand side. Not as exposed, we wove in and out of forest and across small streams. It was now late afternoon but we were kept cool by the wind that sped along the valley. I knew I was getting close to cutoffs and was attempting to run where I could but my brain was refusing to cooperate. My eyes continued to droop, despite my legs feeling okay. As we made the last little climb up to Bonatti I started chatting with an English guy, we commiserated on our shared tired stupor and also the fact that we were unlikely to make the cutoff – misery loves company. As we walked into Bonatti the volunteer informed us that we had 15min to be out and to make our stop quick, if we moved quickly we could get to Arnouvaz before cutoff. My British friend and I looked at each other and decided we had to at least give it a crack. I went to the bathroom and grabbed a coke refill in my cup and left, my British friend ran past me 5min later on the trail. I was now focused on trying to get to Arnouvaz before 6:15pm. I had my doubts – I had been on my feet for 23hrs now and had less than an hour to make the 5km trek but I was willing to try.
Oh so tired but still moving
So, I pushed, I jogged (it definitely wasn’t running) until I would trip and then I would hike. I watched as the minutes seemed to tick by so much faster than the metres. About three quarters of the way through to the next checkpoint and the temperature dropped and it started to rain. I pulled over my hood and thought about getting my gloves but decided against it for times sake. As I started the descent into Arnouvaz I knew it would be very close. I was unsure of exactly how far it was to go when the clock clicked over 6:15pm and I knew my race was over. I stopped jogging and hiked, knowing there was no use to running any faster. It turned out I was less than a kilometer from the checkpoint. As we came into the Arnouvaz, one of the volunteers greeted us and told us they were sorry but the race was over. I just nodded as she cut off my bag and bib timing chips and then hurried to catch the bus back to Courmayer. It was over.
It is just over a week since my attempt at UTMB. There is a lot of introspection and analyzing still going on in my head. I am very lucky that I know others who have done UTMB because it has helped me gain a bit more perspective, it really is one of those races that you can’t fully comprehend or understand until you’ve been there and experienced it yourself.
I have had a few questions about why I got so sleepy. The truth is, I don’t really know. I am still trying to figure that out, but the discussions I have had lead me to believe it was probably a combination of things, including running at altitude (which I have never done before), my body still adjusting to the time zone changes and the evening start.
I guess most people would expect that I am disappointed at ‘only’ 100km of my dream race, which is actually 172km. The truth is, I was always doubtful that I would get past the 30 and 50km time cutoffs, being more of a slow and steady runner. I hadn’t really studied the course past Courmayer in the way that I usually would for a race, so I was happy to get to 100km. Of course I have disappointments and a lot of “what if’s” going on. I have to keep reminding myself that I know so much more now than I did when I started race.
I have also had a lot of people commiserate with me and tell me, I’ll finish next time. That it takes a few goes to get this one right. Maybe that’s true? Unfortunately this was a one shot deal for me. The chasing of points and the travel to the race itself, if and when you get in, is an expensive endeavor and whilst I would love to give it another shot (if anyone wants to bankroll me!) I am content that I got to see those mountains and play in them for just awhile. Plus there are so many other amazing places to run, that are much easier to get to. The list always seems to keep growing!
The biggest thing I have learnt from this race is that mountains truly are my joy, where I belong and want to be. It has been eye opening. I expected to arrive and feel totally overwhelmed by the European mountains, they are so epic, next level to anything I have ever seen, but I never once felt intimidated or scared of them, I just felt excited and wanted to be out there amongst it. So, whilst my journey to UTMB may be over, the adventure that it has sparked in my heart still continues. The mountains are forever calling.
My hubby and kids for supporting me in my running adventures despite the time and money it takes for me to do these things.
My coach, Matt from Judd Adventures, for his constant support, for getting me through my training healthy and not burnt out and for always making sure I still found the joy in what I love.
My support crew, Kirsten and Rebecca, for taking time and money away from their families to help support me both before, during and after the race.
Maz, for always being there for me and always asking me the hard questions that need to be asked
Everyone who has come along on this crazy journey with me. Who has messaged me or commented on my social media posts. I have loved sharing my journey with you and I draw on your support whenever things get tough or my self belief gets low.
Shoes – Topo Runventure 2
Socks – Injinji
Pack – Ultimate Direction Adventure Vest 4.0
Poles – Leki MicroTrail Pro
Jacket – Patagonia
Glasses – Julbo Eyewear
Pants – Kathmandu dri-motion leggings
Thermals – Icebreaker