Lessons Learned at UTMB

2011 UTMB Race Report from Run 100 Miles
photo: I would catch myself just staring at these mountains for long periods of time

The first paragraph of the UTMB [Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc] home page reads:

“Mountain race, with numerous passages in high altitude (>2500m) [8,200 feet], in difficult weather conditions (night, wind, cold, rain or snow) that needs very good training, adapted equipment and a real capacity of personal autonomy.”

Thanks to coach Jennifer Vogel, I have the expert training.

Thanks to my experiences with self-supported races like Laurel Valley, I have the personal autonomy thing down pretty well, too.

But, what I lacked was a real frame of reference for racing in a glacial mountain range, with its rapidly-changing and unpredictable weather conditions, and that proved to be the catalyst that shook me to the breaking point and ended my race after close to 50 miles.

Other than Fuego Y Agua in Nicaragua, UTMB is the most incredible event in which I have ever participated, and like Fuego’s report, this report too will be probably be long and a little emotional, but I just can’t help that. As I sit here, overlooking a street that carries runners through the finish and watching the 40+hour finishers come in, I am filled with so many emotions.

Happiness, but also jealousy.

Excitement, but disappointment.

Amazement, then self-loathing.

Most of all, I’m alone in France, sad, and its lonely times like this when I miss the comfort of my loved ones most.

Appropriate Training Matters

After barely finishing the Keys 100 in May, I dove head-first into rugged mountain training.

Thanks to coach Jennifer Vogel, I never had to think about anything. Just look at my schedule and do the workouts. To me, this is the #1 reason why a coach is beneficial – it takes much of the stress out of figuring out what to do on any given day, forcing accountability and ensuring the right mix.

Jenn: Although I feel terrible, like I really disappointed you (and I know I did ‘cuz I know you – even if you say I didn’t), I appreciate what you did for me more than you’ll ever know. As I sit here after 50 miles of rough stuff, I’m not even sore. Not one bit, and that’s all because of you. Thank you.

I did just about everything right. The workouts, the races in between, everything approached with a focus on UTMB and its 167K [103.7 miles] of crushing climbs, brutal descents and rocky terrain, …but unfortunately, was not prepared for its extreme and wacky weather.

Exuberance x20

I really don’t think its possible for one individual to be more excited about an upcoming race. A week before my flight I could think of nothing else. Did I have all the mandatory gear? Was I sure about my flight logistics? Am I really trained well enough? Exactly how hard is 30,000+ feet of climbing and descending?

(Turns out it’s almost 63,000 feet! — I don’t pay attention very well.)

Air France was awesome and the flight crew knew all about UTMB. It’s a popular event in France and they treated me with special attention trying to speak English to me and offering me big bottles of sparkling water (they call it ‘with gas’) instead of the usual drink cart stuff.

Air France

They even served a five course meal on the plane with a lobster appetizer! It was so much different and better than a domestic airline flight.

So far, so good. Tres bien!

Air France smokes Delta ion comfort and style
photo: Some of the premium seating on Air France flights – won’t see this on Delta

Arriving in Chamonix, France

Chamonix is a tiny village in the French Alps that sits in the glacial valley at the base of Mont Blanc and is therefore 100% surrounded by mountains on both sides. The views are spectacular in Chamonix. They don’t even seem real – it looks like a pre-made Hollywood backdrop.

Chamonix, France
photo:  just a sliver of the eye candy that surrounds Chamonix

Those of you that are friends with me on Facebook got to see a lot of what I was seeing as I cruised around the little village – the cool views, alpine architecture and Chamonix culture – so I won’t repeat it all here, but that alpine architecture and those mountain landscapes are simply awesome, in the true sense of the word.

The attention to the environment is something the Europeans (at least the French) seem to have perfected. Recycling is simply a way of life, not an elitist choice as it feels like in our country. It’s not “cool” to recycle, it’s just expected. The “outdoors” is a big part of people’s lives, work does not seem to be the center of their existence, and food quality, not quantity, is very important. I really like that and believe we (USA) could learn a lot from the French in this regard.

Friday, August 26th, Race Day

Every day I was in Chamonix was gorgeous. Hot, sunny and beautiful. One really special pre-race highlight for me was watching the fun mini-UTMB race that The North Face puts on for the little kids. I laughed and cheered them on alongside American elites Hal Koerner, Jez Bragg and Lizzy Hawker (UK) amongst a big group of others.

Hal Koerner and Christian Griffith at UTMB 2011
photo: Abi Stephens shoots a photo of Hal Koerner and me at the Mini-UTMB Kids Race

Even race day started out with bright blue sunny skies, but around noon all competitors got a text message from the race directors stating that the race had been postponed due to impending weather. It read:

“UTMB: important storm + cold weather + rain or snow. UTMB start at 11:30 p.m. The route doesn’t change, except Vallorcine-Chamonix by the bottom of the valley.”

Note: They would actually later be changing a significant portion of the course as I heard the Bovine aid station was destroyed during the night after the race start late Friday night. I missed that announcement ‘cuz honestly, I’m not in the habit of checking my phone during a race; however, I have since learned mobile phone alerts are a common mid-race alert style in European races.

This 5-hour push-back change in start time freaked me out. For one, I could see the storms over Mont Blanc and the mountain looked angry.

Mont Blanc hidden by oncoming storm
photo: 4:30 pm, and oncoming storm completely blocks out Mont Blanc

The wind started picking up in Chamonix and by 5:30 it started to rain pretty hard. And two, they had shortened the cut-off times significantly at the early aid stations – tougher conditions needed to be negotiated faster. That didn’t seem right, but there’s really no choice but to adapt.

Mistake #1: I had not planned for such extreme weather. Yes, I had all the mandatory gear, and yes my waterproof gear contained Goretex, but it was not designed for cold, just rain. Same with my waterproof pants. When I bought the gear, the REI dude asked me if I needed for cold, too, but I said no.

In a panic, I rushed out of my li’l boxcar apartment and straight to the North Face exhibit area in the center of the village, found a SKINS rep, and scored a long-sleeved base layer, and a pair of tights from Adidas, hoping I would be good to go.

At the very least, it would be better than not having ‘em.

Up until this recent announcement, I had expected to start the race in shorts and a wicking, short-sleeved shirt, and carry all of the mandatory extreme gear in my pack; instead, there I was standing on the starting line in compression shorts, tights, and waterproof pants on my lower half, with a base layer, race shirt and waterproof hooded jacket (with hood up) on top, in the pouring rain, at 11:00 p.m. at night.

Dressed warm for the start of the 2011 UTMB
photo: I did not expect to start the race like I was about to climb Everest

And so it begins…

Start to Saint Gervais (21K)

The start was pretty exciting, but I was incredibly nervous. The crowd was thick and I lined up near the back with Abigail Stephens, the only other person I knew in the race, but she had to pee just before the start, left to find a bathroom, and I never saw her again.

Everything was in French so I never really knew when we started, but as the wave of 2300 runners started moving forward, I knew we were under way.

Rain start at UTMB
photo: 11:25 p.m., five minutes from the start and just a little nervous …ok, A LOT!

In Europe, endurance sports are HUGE. The number of UTMB race fans crowding the start and yelling for us was shocking. I was smiling huge, and it helped me calm my nerves. In fact, throughout the entire race, as we came off the trail and entered other French and Italian villages, locals lined the streets at all hours of the day and night yelling “Allez!, Allez!” [go! go!]. I’ve always heard that the French don’t like us, but the fans were very supportive of me and many times would yell out my name (‘cuz it was on my bib along with my country) and “GO USA!”

We ran through Chamonix and hit the trail pretty soon after starting. It was very difficult to get used to running this way. For one, it was packed, and it stayed packed. 2,300 trail runners on one trail is too much. Number two, a lot of runners already had their poles out unnecessarily and peeps were tripping and falling all over them.

It was still raining pretty hard, and by now I’m soaked and already feeling chilled.

I’m not always 100% that I’ll have my locations exactly right in this report ‘cuz I couldn’t communicate nor read any of the signs, but I’m pretty sure we came off the trail first in Les Houches. There was a big aid station there, but I didn’t stop as I had 3 liters of water in my pack, and I was hoping to finally spread out from the pack. Plus, we had only gone a measly 8K…

After Les Houches, we hit the first climb. Wow, is all I can say. 800m [2,624 feet] of elevation gain, over 6K of distance, of very steep climbing. Not as steep as what was to come, but to put it in perspective for non-runners, the Empire State building is 1,224 feet from the ground floor to the 102nd floor observatory. This climb was equivalent to taking the stairs to the top of the Empire State building, …twice, and then heading up a third time before stopping somewhere around the 31st floor.

Nice climb, right?

It was freezing up there and I’m pretty sure it started to hail …or sleet, but I’m not sure which one. I was frustrated because I expected my waterproof gear to protect me better, but it just felt like the wind cut right through it, and I started to shiver pretty badly right away.

But the descent was the crazy part.

Descending into Saint-Gervais, was completely insane and nothing I have ever experienced before in my five years of trail running. The runners were still all crowded together, and now we are dumped from the summit onto thin single-track. The descent was crazy muddy as the ground was soaked and unstable, and the hundreds of runners ahead just chewed it up even worse – I can only imagine how bad it was for the hundreds of runners behind me.

Add in incredibly steep terrain, coupled with a frustrated conga line of fresh, eager runners from all over the world carrying trekking poles, and you have a match of “trail rugby” goin’ on in full effect.

Finally something I was good at. After the first elbow got thrown at me for passing, it was on, and I started throwing elbows back. Took one dude straight into the mud and I don’t feel a bit bad about it because it was happening all around me and to me as well. It just seems to be the way the Europeans race.

In the U.S. I guess we are wimpy with our quiet, polite warnings, “on your left”, as we approach a slower runner from behind, or if a runner hears you coming up on them, they may graciously step to the right to let you pass. Not here, they just charge it, and whatever happens, happens. While later on I got annoyed with this, it was pretty fun while I was fresh and feeling spunky. When it gets physical, I have an advantage.

I warmed back up pretty quickly during the ~3,000 foot descent since we were all crowded together on the trail and moving pretty wildly, but I was still soaked all the way through and muddy as Pigpen.

We exited the trail and ran into the French town of Saint-Gervais to a large crowd of welcoming fans all screaming “allez, allez” and “bravo, bravo” and ringin’ big ol’ cow bells.

We were into the wee hours now and I was shocked to see so many people out cheering random runners in the rain. Still feeling good, I grabbed handfuls of food, downed some Coca-Cola and soup, and blazed out pretty quickly.

A Bit About the Aid Stations

The aid stations were huge parties, always packed with runners and volunteers, and incredibly well-stocked.

Usual offerings at races in the U.S. are all sugar – gummy bears, M&Ms, cookies, PB&J sandwiches, potatoes with salt; but this was much different. While the aid stations at UTMB did have sugar, it was more in the form of cakes and crackers, none of which I had any idea what they were or what was in ‘em, so I treaded lightly, but the unique (and best) thing about the aid stations was the meat and cheese. Different kinds of ham, salami and cheeses in abundance. I immediately thought of Sally Brooking, legendary (yea, Sally, “legendary”) Georgia ultrarunner who swears by, and carries, meat and cheese on long runs and races. They also offered us hot noodle soup, bean soup, plain broth, coffee and tea.

Because I was so cold, I went for the soups every single time.

Saint-Gervais to Les Contamines (31K)

After the Saint-Gervais check-in, we ran through the town a bit, hit some rugged single-track, and then ran through some wild cow fields with cows just lying around staring at the runners. Through this section we only climbed about 300 feet, over six miles, so there was lots of good running.

It was along this section that I ran into another American runner, Nattu Natraj from the Bay area of California. It freaked me out to hear my name 6000 miles from home and I froze for a second before I realized who it was. We shot each other a few words of encouragement, he commented on my muddy status, and we continued on down the trail.

This stretch was really pretty uneventful. Dark, short ups and downs coupled with long stretches of very runnable terrain; however, it was still crowded on the trail and truth be told, I was starting to get sick of the conga lines and the start-stop thing that happens when just one runner in the pack sketches.

Les Contamines over Bonhomme to Les Chapieux (50k)

Holy crap! This is where I got served my alps experience in the most intense of ways. I am going to do my best to explain with the justice it deserves as it was the most incredible section of running (well, mostly fast-packing) that I have experienced.

As I was leaving Les Contamines aid station, I again bumped into Nattu. I asked how far we had gone, and after telling me, he sort of alluded to a lot of climbing coming up …but just “alluded”.

We ran about 4k of flat, easy terrain and voila, another aid station. I didn’t understand this - why another aid station so soon?

I blew it off but was soon to learn that it was there because we were about to enter Hell and it would be slow go and hours until the next one, but at the time I didn’t know.

Immediately after aid, we started to climb very steeply, long and slowly. I just kept my head down and soldiered through this climb, and at some point along the way, I lifted my head and realized we had popped out of the trees, daylight was coming, and I could see all these HUGE, monstrous mountains all around me.

Sun up at UTMB halfway up Bonhomme
photo: what seemed miles away from Chamonix appears within just feet now

We were starting the first glacial pass and I stopped dead in my tracks and just stared at it all, trying to absorb what I was seeing, but just not fully able to process its enormity – sensory overload fo’ sho’.

I once read this book called “The Shack” and it immediately came to mind. There is a section in the novel where the author tries to explain the environment of Heaven as he is seeing it, and I felt like I was seeing the visual representation of that scene in the book.

Those jagged mountains that appeared so far away to me while in the Chamonix valley were now so close to me that I felt like I could just reach out and touch them. I was there. I was up in ‘em, and I was headed deeper and closer and …and Hell, I was headed on TOP of ‘em.

I knew I was standing somewhere and seeing something 99.999% of the population will never see and I was doing everything I could to soak it all in and appreciate the raw, untouched, unbridled beauty. The water? Dude these little snow-melt streams were flowing with the most crystal clear water I have ever seen in my entire life – like, invisible water.

I snapped out of it when I realized I was shivering and my teeth starting chattering. I started shaking badly and I couldn’t make myself stop. Has that ever happened to you? It’s a terrible feeling, and having gotten hypothermia in my first 100, I got a little scared. I think I suffer from cold paralysis (I just made that up.)

The temps felt like they dropped 50 degrees. Instantly.

I got to the La Bolme aid station which is about halfway up the pass, and they luckily had a fire raging. I got as close to that fire as I could without going up in flames, and I wasn’t the only one – peeps were fighting for a spot near the fire. People were changing into warmer clothes out of their packs, but I was already wearing everything warm I brought (and purchased in a panic pre-race); and worse, it was all still soaking wet, so I just stood by the fire for about 5 minutes hoping to at least dry my gloves, shoes and toboggan, but also realizing I’m in a race and should probably get moving.

I knew I had to get going, but looking up the trail further I could see runners the size of little ants forever up the pass and realized the climbing was just beginning.

“At least its pretty up here.” I rationalized, then shot a few photos, and put my head back down and started the grind on up.

From La Bolme to the very top was thee most challenging climb I have ever encountered, …or so I thought it was, but we’ll get to that… hold on to that thought.

Like most long climbs, it becomes a traffic jam of runners, all moving incredibly slowly, hundreds of athletes but no words being spoken. Steps are carefully placed as the terrain is treacherous, the grade ridiculously steep (and getting steeper) and the false summits just keep on coming.

It was absolutely brutal, but stunningly …and I mean stunningly beautiful.

But as I stared out at the breathtaking view of the French Alps, with snowy peaks as far as the eye could see, I saw the front.

This long line of thick white fringe with a blanket of blackness behind it – and it was roaring at us at a pace in which I have never seen a weather system move.

The storm hit us just as we topped out on top of Bonnehomme. I couldn’t have timed it more precisely if I tried 1000 times. Just about the second my right foot hit that summit, we got nailed.

It beat me (all of us in that group) to death. The wind howled hurricane-gust style and this thin icy, sleety snow started blowing everywhere. It was crazy and abrupt and intense and I could no longer even see the rest of the mountain ranges around me.

I was so cold I didn’t know what to do, so I dipped off the trail and found a rock outcropping that looked like a small cave and tucked myself inside of it. I know it’s weird, but I was honestly scared to death because of how cold I was. Perhaps, had I not been so cold and wet for over 8 hours, I would have dealt with it better, but trying to avoid the conditions seemed like a good idea at the time.

The snow got heavier and I realized that I was actually getting colder NOT moving. “Damn this sucks!” I yelled, and I got up and made the decision to descend the mountain as fast as I could to a) stay warm, and b) get low enough to get away from this snow.

This strategy worked, but being that it was still a conga line, and seeing as how I was now behind slower movers than before from sitting in the cave, it took awhile to get below the snow line.

But then below the snow line wasn’t much better because then it was just raining. Cold rain. And cold rain makes lots of mud. So much mud in fact that the trails became a series of small tributaries, kinda like fingers, and you never really knew which trail was the right one.

It was chaos. The European runners were avoiding the marked trails due to the slickness of the mud on the steep terrain, and opting to cut switchbacks or run through the tundra-esque grass.

Being a race-rules purist, I tried to keep it real and stay on the marked trails but busted my ass a number of times which only made me wetter, colder and covered in more thick mud.

Then came the proverbial icing on the cake. The straw that broke the camel’s back. As I rushed through a particularly steep, muddy drop, I slipped and jammed my trekking pole into the ground to break my fall.

It snapped completely in two.

I just wilted in complete deflation. The frustration was immense and all compounded on me at that one moment. I tried to tell myself that tough 100-mile ultras are all about adapting and getting through the low points ‘cuz it will always get better, but that wasn’t working. My only option was to simply walk the descent for awhile, now with only one pole, and try to collect myself mentally and figure out how I was going to get back on track.

Les Chapieux to Lac Combal

I arrived at Les Chapieux hoping desperately for another fire, but there was not one. As I made my way through the chute, I tossed my broken pole into a trash bag and made eye contact with a spectator who shot me the most obvious “damn, I’m sorry bro” sympathetic look. I just shrugged my shoulders and went looking for soup.

A quick bowl and I was off again. Just me and my one pole. I contemplated finding a tree limb, but there were no sticks around that didn’t require me trying to negotiate a steep slope to break off one from a live tree. We were still mostly above the tree line anyway, so my only options were tiny bush trees. I gave up and settled on the fact I was going to be limited to one pole and to just deal with it.

Remember way back early in the report when I said Bonhomme felt like the toughest climb I have ever endured? Well, now I’m pretty sure the trip up to Col de la Seigne was worse.

First of all, the climb from Les Chapieux to Col de la Seigne was another nasty, steep 3,200 feet in just 10k (6.2 miles) of distance.

To put this in perspective for Georgia runners, The Hogpen Hill Climb race in Blairsville, Georgia climbs ~2000 feet spread out over 10 miles.

Second, this was another one of those climbs where you could see other runners waaaaay up on the ridge, and they looked tiny and far, far away. And once again, I’m part of a conga line that’s just easing our way up. One step at a time. Excruciatingly slowly.

And also once again, here comes some wind, which then adds rain, which then turns to snow, and by the time we got halfway up to Col de la Seigne the entire scene was a total white-out. Not only could I not see any of the glaciers, I couldn’t even see more than 50 yards up the trail.

“I can’t believe this is happening again!”

And just like Bonhomme, the false summits just’a kept on coming and the climb felt like an eternity of howling wind, blowing snow, and terribly muddy footing. I knew my friend Abigail was worried about the cold from the start and I wondered if she was still in the game. I hadn’t seen her, so I didn’t know if she was in front, in back, or bailed out, but if she was still in, I knew this was killing her.

At the top the wind was really goin’ at it, blowing snow everywhere, and I was shocked that the race people were still up there capturing the bar code on our race bibs. Maybe I was just deflated, but I kept thinking I was going to get to the top and they were going to tell us the race was canceled, but nope – dude simply yells out something I didn’t understand, trying to speak over the wind, and points down.

So down we went.

Finally, the weather on the other side was much, much nicer. In fact, by the time we reached the bottom, Lac Combal, the sun was shining brightly and actually felt like it might get warm, but I wasn’t yet convinced as there was still thunder rumbling behind me, and still a lot of wind, and I felt like that storm was singling me out and chasing me specifically.

Lac Combal to Courmayeur (78K ~halfway point)

I didn’t stay at Lac Combal more than 3 minutes I don’t think. I saw too many battered runners sitting down and laying around all groaning and complaining, so I bailed fast. I was trashed, but I wasn’t yet ready to be a casualty.

For awhile, we meandered down this gravel road and I found a nice little shuffling running pace to fall into and all seemed right with the world again.

I should have known better.

I looked to my right and this little side trail, heading steeply up, was marked with a trail marker.

“Really?” I said aloud. “Reeeeaaaalllllly?”

And again, we starting climbing. Again we moved slowly up another exposed ridge. Again I could see a conga line of runners up ahead, …and behind, and yet again, the wind was howling.

But no snow this time.

Cool.

And just as we finally hit the top, the North Face helicopter video crew appeared over my left shoulder and shot video of us beginning our very long descent towards Col Checrouit and eventually Courmayeur – we were headed into Italy.

I’ll be excited to get a copy of the DVD and see if I can see myself flailing and flopping down that descent trying to look like a real runner.

Descending from here to Col Checrouit was actually pretty sunny and warm, but still with a major wind, and I was finally, for the first time 14 hours, NOT cold. The trail was steep, rocky and technical and my running had turned to this sort of controlled falling thing with my hands making a sort of slapping motion as I ran down.

I was only about 500 yards from the aid station when out of the corner of my eye saw some ass cheeks. It took me a minute to process it, but some girl decided she couldn’t wait 500 feet to “get ‘r done” and just’a hung her ass out for everyone to see. No hiding behind a tree, or ducking off somewhere, but just droppin’ em right there. I tried not to look, but I couldn’t help it. I shrugged it off as a French-thing, and popped into the aid station and had a plum.

I was warned about the final descent to Courmayeur, but there is simply no way to describe this quad-crusher. You simply have to experience it for yourself.

This little mini section from Col Checrouit is only about 4k, but you drop a staggering 2,500 feet, with most of that in the last 2k. With 45 miles on your legs, that’s just flat-out, down-right evil.

Really think about that for a minute – 2,500 foot drop in 2 miles. That’s stright down. Drastically. And it was.

However, running into the small, cobbled-stone streets of the Italian mountain town of Courmayeur was pretty damn cool. People cheering and screaming and high-fiving us. It lifted me up quite a bit.

I picked up my pace trying to rep the good ol’ U.S.A. by trying to “look” strong, while also in a hurry to get to the gymnasium and get out of my wet clothes and eat.

The End for USA #2373 Christian Griffith

2011 UTMB for Christian Griffith

According to the UTMB data sheets, up to this halfway point we had climbed over 4406m [14,455 feet] and descended 4241m [13,914 feet] in just 78k [48 miles]. That’s more elevation change than almost every single 100-mile race in the states for the entire 100-mile distance!

Courmayeur is considered the halfway point (although its a little short) and I arrived in a respectable 15 hours considering the incredible {already} 30,000 feet of elevation change.

Mistake #2: Leading up to the race I was always thinking that the entire elevation change over the full 103.7 miles was a little over 30,000 feet; but nope, the race is actually 31,374 feet up and 31,374 feet down, equaling a staggering 62,748 feet of total elevation change for the entire UTMB.

Damn. I gotta get better at my planning.

But as I came into Courmayeur, I felt good. My fitness was there (thanks again Jenn Vogel) but mentally I was still pretty unglued and was having trouble getting it together. I had plenty of time, so I decided to take an hour at Courmayeur to eat, change shoes, and evaluate what useful gear I had available for a second night.

I freaked.

Everything in my bag was soaked, and while I know I will catch heat from friends who know how badly I plan and prepare in 100s, I did not have enough in my drop bag to get me through another night of freezing temperatures.

But by 5:30 p.m. I headed out anyway – shorts, short-sleeved shirt, …and Hokas in anticipation of a lot of upcoming downhill running.

There’s no other way to say this or sugar-coat it or make it sound any different than it truly was so I’m just going to say it – I FREAKED OUT – totally. I got through the town of Courmayeur, started climbing up the steep single-track towards Refuge Bertone and as the evening started to creep into the trails, I felt that familiar wind with that familiar cold, and the head games set in.

“I just about froze to death last night, IN MORE GEAR than I have now.”

“Last night was only 11:30-7:00, tonight will be 12 hours of darkness and cold”

“I’m about to hit the steepest climbs in the race, I only have one pole, and I’ll be doing so in the freezing cold night temps and crazy wind and who knows WHAT else.”

“I can’t endure that cold again. I’ll die up there.”

Now we all know I probably would not have died up there, but something about being cold is just very scary for me. When I start shivering and I can’t stop, it’s the worst feeling in the world. It paralyzes me like closed places do claustrophobics. Add fried, over-reactive ultra-brain to the equation, and I was done.

Note: I later found out that it was in fact a worse night than the previous night. Mark Nassi reported freezing temperatures and the strongest wind gusts experienced yet in the race. Apparently, those without poles were practically getting blown over up high. Furthermore, there was a lot of inconsistency with course change reporting and cut-off times, and people were really getting mixed up out there. In light of that news, I felt like I had made the right decision.

Trust me, it was not an easy decision. I thought about everyone – my wife, my family, my coach, all my well-wishers, people I work with, and on and on and on. My entire life is a open book and I share my thoughts, feelings, and life experiences with the world because it gives me great joy – but when I fail, there is nowhere to hide, and that failure weighs a lot more under those circumstances than if I was a reserved, keep-to-myself kinda dude.

But I wasn’t gonna freeze to death for anybody.

I turned around, trying not to make eye contact with the other runners making their way up the climb, and headed down. Hanging my head like a little league ball player who just struck out, I started back to Courmayeur to have my bracelet snipped and catch a bus back to Chamonix.
I was crushed. I whined a little to my wife and on Facebook, and… well, ok I’ll admit it, I bawled on the phone to my wife. The combination of all it took to get here, everything I went through in those crazy-rough mountains, getting my ass kicked, and then failing just bottomed me out, man.

I know, I know, but I feel better telling the truth. I’m just kind of an emotional dude. It’s my Mom’s fault. She’s dramatic. I’m dramatic.
But my wife bucked me up pretty good and told me to snap out of it. “You’re in Europe, go explore some shit!”

And Monday morning, that’s what I did. I went and ran other sections of the trails around Mont Blanc, shot videos, took pictures, drank from her streams, laid in the sunshine and made my peace with the Alps. It was just what the doctor ordered.

Lastly, as I ran down the mountain, I kept running right into Chamonix and followed the same route through town that finishers followed. Of course, the finish line was gone, but I ran through it anyway vowing that next year it would be for real.

And just like that, I was all better.

Will I Come Back?

While UTMB is a giant commitment, both financially and time-wise, I certainly would like to come back next year if I can qualify and be selected. I have absolutely fallen in love with France, a lot of the French culture (but not all), and most importantly Mont Blanc and the French Alps.

Let’s face it, hundreds are my nemesis. I’ve completed 5 and DNF’d 6, but as of this writing, I have completed over 50 races of ultramarathon distance (50-100K) [31-62 miles], and have progressively gotten faster and smarter at those distances over the five years since becoming a runner. That’s my sweet spot – but that doesn’t mean I’m going to give up on 100-milers – I’m going to keep on learning, keep on testing myself, and keeping getting better until I overcome my issues with the distance.

Yea, I’m 41, but I don’t care. I still think I can get better.

But for now, I’m switching gears for awhile as my next focus is chasing the sub-3 marathon. Another goal of mine since I started running.

My first marathon, which I ran in November 2006, was waaay over five hours and I remember being so amazed by the runners that could to it 2 hours and something – Hell, two hours and anything sounds super fast, whether it’s 2:20 or 2:59. There is just something about that “2“ that I want to see.

Unexpectedly got close this year with a 3:13:01 PR at this year’s Mercedes Marathon, but 14 minutes is a lot to shave off. I’ll be chasing the sub-3 goal at Dink Taylor’s (Mountain Mist RD) Rocket City Marathon in Huntsville, AL on December 10, 2011.

Then, it will be time to get ready for the 2012 ultra season where I will chase time goals at the 50K distance at my southeastern staple, streak races like Mountain Mist and Mount Cheaha before backing off and transitioning into longer distance training with the hopes of coming back to UTMB and finishing.

What Will I Do Different in 2012?

First and foremost, I made a huge mistake not bringing my family out here, so that’s A-#1. Austin and Babette will join me next time in France so they can experience something new and exciting, too. They can crew if they want – or they can run off and play if they want – I don’t care as long as I know they are here and learning and living and growing too.

I will show up Alps-smarter. Being a lowly redneck from Georgia, I have very limited experience in really rugged mountains at altitude, and especially rugged mountain environments like the Alps. The ever-changing, dynamic weather events are truly something to see, and also not to be taken lightly.

I simply had no real frame of reference, but now I do. And now that I have this frame of reference, these are some of the things I would do much differently:

#1 – Warmer Gear: Not only will I have good waterproof gear, but I will have two sets of it. One set either on, or in my pack, and another set in my drop bag at Courmayeur.

#2 – Poles: I will never use the Black Diamond Ultra Distance Z-Poles again. Curse you Black Diamond for making such a weak and cheesy pole. Why else would you need poles in an ultra if not in extremely challenging terrain? The portability is nice with the folding joints, but that’s also the weak link in design and exactly where mine (and other runners’) snapped. I would have much preferred my heavier, but stronger Leki Ultra poles.
However, I might add that I learned a lot watching the elite European mountain runners. They use a technique while climbing where they use their arms by placing their hands on their quads and knees and pushing down as they climb. Both Kilian Jornet (ESP) and Lizzy Hawker (UK) do this very well and its a technique I’d like to learn. Maybe I could just forget the lame-ass poles since I don’t really like ‘em anyway.

#3 – Better gloves and hat: I was reminded by another ultrarunner that keeping the head and hands warm is the best way to trap heat, and if so inclined, can make it so one requires less layers. I don’t know about less layers, but my hands stayed wet and cold and I will make sure that doesn’t happen next time.

#4 – Poncho: Lisa Bliss reinforced this for me after the race, but I also remember seeing dudes with ponchos that not only covered them, but their packs too. This would have been a big help in keeping both me and my pack dry while also providing the added benefit of trapping in some more heat.

#5 – Train the downs: This is the one and only area where I could not follow Jen’s training advice perfectly. Due to work constraints, it made it tough for me to hit severe downhills during the weekdays and this proved to show in the race. My climbing was stronger than ever cause you can simulate that training easy on stairmills and x7i treadmills along with real mountains, but its tough to simulate downhills. You simply have to do it, and next time, no excuses – 3 a.m. bombers if I have to…

So there ya go. There’s probably more that I’m forgetting, but if you read this far then you have a much better attention span than me.

The bad news is I DNF’d.

The good news is I’m not banged up, still feel physically fresh, and I got to come to France. I met new people and saw old friends. I experienced some the most raw and incredible beauty on this planet, and did so under some extreme circumstances which adds that much more character to the event.

I gained a new appreciation for other cultures, for the mountains, and for the support of my family and friends.

You know, I ain’t much. I make mistakes, poor decisions, and I’m not always appropriate, but the one gift I have is the ability to communicate and if I can stoke and stimulate other runners who read of my adventures, then I’m doing exactly what I want to be doing with my writing and that makes me happy.

May all of you reading have much success in your running, and life in general, too. Hug your families, love your spouses, and don’t forget about them because when we do, we suffer. They suffer. And it just isn’t worth it in the end.

Our sport puts tremendous demands on us, but even more so those who have chosen to live with and love us. As I wrote right before I started this crazy race, I’m nothing without my wife, and I’ve never felt so strongly about that than I do right now. It was during a particularly challenging time in our lives when I was accepted into UTMB and because of that I made some pretty bad, selfish choices in deciding to come to France alone.

I’m sorry for the li’l emotional dump. I really didn’t mean to go there, but I did. People think I’m weird anyway, so I guess I can get away with eye-rolling over-expression. I write how I feel at the moment. I just don’t want to ever again lose sight of the value of my relationship because I was too self-absorbed to wear the other shoe.

I love you Babette and appreciate all you endure so that your fat, obnoxious, 41-year old thinning-haired romeo can validate his desire to be an athlete; but most of all, rest assured that I’m here to be that same pillar of support for you as you embark on your athletic discovery, as well.

Holla!

Viva la France!

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Comments

That was a brilliant, inspirational read – thank you. I am aiming to qualify for the 2015 event (2 points already in the bag). We have a similar PB for the marathon distance, and a similar number of 50km+ events completed. It is fascinating to read about your experiences; I certainly appreciate the raw emotion and honesty that your report includes. Thank you again – no doubt I will read this post again many times between now and my arrival on the starting line.

Thanks for your great report. I’m going for the UTMB this year. Will definitely look for good and warm clothes.

Frank

Fabulous walk-thru of your experience. I’m running the C-C-C this year; first time at this distance and elevation. I’ve have a month worth of training weekends planned at high elevation prior to the race. Looking forward with telling my own story.

Christian, great report, I feel like I was there with you.

In 7 days I run UTMB as well and feel scary after your report. hope weather will be better this year

good luck! and yes, make sure you have enough for a second night a courmayeur

Hello Christian! I am from Argentina and about to face UTMB in less than 3 weeks! I have devoured your chronicle and my anxiety has raised to unexpected levels! I will revise for sure my strategy with the warm clothes and changes in Courmayeur…
Thank you!!

Christian-this was an excellent report. A group of 5 of us that completed the Leadville in August 2011 were “fortunate” enough to be drawn from the lottery for UTMB. Needless to say we’re all excited. I will pass along your commentary on the race. Being wet and cold is shear tortutre. I have been there and it is a real mind ****! You have officially scared the crap out of me about Mt Blanc. I have lots of time to plan still. Will invest in great gear, test it out in bad weather and practice the downhills. This simply ismno substitute for experience – many many thanks for sharing yours! Cheers and have a great 2012 race season!! I’m just up the road from you in Nashville. PT

Thanks for the write-up! I’m dreaming of doing UTMB in 2013 and just learned so much from this report. You are doing a service to others by taking the time to share all of this. And Vive la France!

Thanks for the story, thanks for the possibility learning from your experience. i am shure, i will benefit from it. Thanks!

YeAh-yEah Christian,
Great report. Good analysis and right decision.
Nice to meet on Monday morning and I hope see you there next year too!
Keep goin’
S.//rock

Wow, Christian, what a moving and introspective story. I know these trails so well, I can really appreciate the pain you went through. And I did read your race report down to the end, your great and sincere writing captured all my attention span! ;-)
All the best for next year, I’ll have to join this party too at some point…

I was anxiously awaiting the report – glad you made it back safely to your family – which is the most important!

Good luck at Rocket City. I had a major PR there a couple years ago after bumbling through some marathon doldrums. I can’t say enough good things about that race – the volunteers, the mgmt team, the schwag, the shirt, the food, the course, the aid, etc. Truly top notch and one of the few marathons I’d be willing to do again. Since it’s only marathoners (no half), there is a certain air to the race that feels hardcore and real as well (though it’s “just” 26.2). Enjoy!

Sorry man, I couldn’t make to our coffe time in Chamonix. I guess next year. Thank for your report.

What a bummer. I was hoping to read a story of a triumphant trampling of Mont Blanc; but the unfinished quest may be an even better one. You put me right there on the mountain with you – feeling the cold and frustration. I’m just glad you were smart enough to know the limit of sanity and pulled yourself back to be able to write about your adventure for all of us to read.
It sounds like you have made your peace with this experience for now, and have some solid plans for the future.
Best of luck on chasing down 3:00 – I know you’ve got it in you, even at 41!

Christian, thanks for taking me along on your adventure through this awesome documentary.

You have accomplished a lot Christian. You didn’t always finish but we know you always tried. You are aquiring quite a resume. Throw in Leadville and Badwater and you would just about have the best of the best.

With a tip of my cap to Bill and to Ted…..hard things are hard, that’s why they’re called ‘hard’. Way to go, man!

Gotta agree with Dr. Mahoney. IMHO your best prep for this monster is to run/finish/SURVIVE another monster. Do Hardrock, Dude. Hell, you’re already manning its website. Next summer go man-up its wilderness. Hang tough. At 41, to borrow the John Sebastian phrase, you’re just a proverbial “knee high.” And, to borrow another, “your future’s so bright, ya gotta wear shades.”

I’m contemplating applying for the UTMB 2012 and your report has confirmed the harshness of the weather and massive ascents to me. But, the scenery and enormity of the whole race is a must. 60 miles is the most I have completed, with 10,000ft of ascent and I would have to find 40 miles and 20,000ft more ascent! That is what I’m always questioning. Thanks for spending the time to share your experiences. I have sent you a friend request on Facebook. Steve

Christian,

Be who you are and no apologies accepted :) . Great report and a courageous effort. Thanks for having the courage to share your emotions as well. You inspire me in many ways…

Knowing you, next year you will conquer the UTMB course and we will all be cheering for you.

Juli

Tough DNF for ya. I found it somewhat comical that you misread the elevation profile by 30k’ :) I’m sure it’s the last time you’ll do that. Best of luck to you in the future.

“Success is the ability to go from one failure to another without the loss of enthusiasm.” – Sir Winston Churchill

Awesome report Christian! I can’t wait to do the UTMB! My goal this year and leading up to Leadville is to qualify for UTMB. Good luck on the trails!

Thanks for an amazing race report. I could almost feel how you felt during your hardships. I’m also rooting for you on your next try. With the experience you gained this time you’ll make it next year. Welcome back to Europe!

Christian, excellent effort out there. It was indeed an even more vicious version of an already vicious race. I have no doubt that you will not only return but that you will prevail! Good running my friend. -Ricky Paugh @rickypaugh (Twitter)

It is the lows that allow us to experience higher highs and ultimately make us better and stronger. What an inspirational journey you are on. Thanks for sharing.

Great report Christian. I could feel your pain while reading about the cold and wet wind. You will conquer this monster next year! Hey, Im running Rocket City too, maybe we can meet

Thank you, Christian, for getting emotional. You not only wrote your story, you wrote the story of many participants. Your words put me right back out there on the mountain where every emotion is experienced and heightened. It was great meeting and sharing the bus ride with you–perhaps we will earn and wear the vest with pride some day!

Best wishes on all your endeavors–hope to see you in the Alps again.

G

What a great report! Thanks so much for writing it all. Looking forward to hearing how next year goes for you. :) Good running until then!

A great read as usual.

Good luck on the sub 3 marathon in December.

Great report, Christian! The only thing I would disagree with is your statement, “I ain’t much”. You are made of some serious stuff. I have great respect for you. If you are ever back New Mexico way let me know.

Awesome Report!!!!. Celebrate your health with those you love!!!!
From my freediving abalone days. 35% heat loss is from head and neck!! Maybe more for Georgia Rednecks. Light weight wool and neck hats?…. Shivering from North Cal body surfing. Try and slow down or stop moving and hold your head steady and open your mouth and let your lower jaw hang open. this is a technique that should snap you out of paroxysmal shiver. Practice with different hat weights and wool neck wraps and shivers. UTMB is waiting for your entire family to return.
Love,
Christopher

Enjoyed the report and your openess. It’s amped me up for my 1st ultra. Superior 50 next weekend.

What an adventure!.. If I didn’t hate the cold weather
so much I might even give it a try.. but like I’m from
Florida dude. :)

Great report. It sounds like the terrain of Hardrock with the crowds of Leadville. You would like them too.

Good stuff Christian. Thanks for sharing. :)

Awesome report, Christian. I am rooting for you on your next assault on Mt. Blanc. Was just telling a buddy yesterday about your “why not?” attitude and how inspiring it is for me. Thanks : )

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