Sometimes giving up a dream is impossible, no matter how much you’ve grown to dislike it. Loving or hating the dream doesn’t have anything to do with the fact that you have pursue it.
The Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc is the ultimate trail-running challenge, the dream that takes you 170k and 10000 meters of vertical gain through France, Italy and Switzerland. I had been training for months and months — preparing, training too hard, getting injured, rehabilitating, slowly getting back into training and on race day I was feeling just enough ready to dare take on the challenge.
I thought I had been smart. But the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc is a race like no other. It’s a beast, and you shouldn’t even try to outsmart it. All you can do is run.
My first attempt at UTMB ended way too soon. There were several reasons for this, but my main issue was the nausea that affected my race significantly. I only got to run 50k of the course, and most of it in darkness. I didn’t get to see the sun rise over the mountains, I didn’t get to feel that second-night cold and damp air — the one that would make me feel that it’s getting closer. I didn’t even get to run until I got really tired. All of the beauty I didn’t get to experience, saddens me more than the fact that I didn’t get the finisher fleece-vest. I didn’t make it this time, and now I’ve got some serious unfinished business with this race — with all of it. The course, the smelly cheese, the cheering crowds and the queuing.
I’m not even sure I like this race. There were parts of it that didn’t at all suit my personality. Don’t get me wrong. The UTMB is a marvellous race, with an organization that runs surprisingly smooth. 2500 runners, lots of volunteers keeping everyone fed, alive and on the course. The mountains were of course beautiful. The nature and the trail, the ups and downs, the vast contrasts, the cows, and the struggle — all of this was amazing. I loved the feeling in my legs, I loved how fast I was downhill (at one point passing 140 runners from the top of the mountain to the valley) and I loved how demanding the course was. And you feel taken care of. You feel like a hero and a superstar, people cheering you on everywhere, calling out your name, all through the night. But the way that you can turn into a fallen hero within seconds, is disturbing. You have to stay on top of things all the time. If (or when) things go just a little bit wrong, they tend to scale up uncontrollably, as if trying to match the huge challenge that lies ahead.
At one time, I sat down on top of a mountain trying to catch my breath. A volunteer turned up out of nowhere, asking me if I was alright. I definitely got the feeling that if I hadn’t got up on my feet right there and then, I would have been taken off the course. Because here’s one of the very important lessons I learned — at UTMB you can’t afford to catch your breath. You can’t afford to let anything go wrong, you can’t allow anything to slow you down, and if you try to be smart and plan your race according to standard ultra rules — just forget it. UTMB plays by its own rules and you have to keep moving forward no matter what — and more often than not, in a much higher pace than you like.
2500 runners on a (most of the time) single-track course, made it tricky to find a good rythm. Too much standing still, too much queuing, just too much people everywhere. On my long downhill run when I passed so many runners, I had to use all of my focus to make sure I wasn’t hit by someone else’s trekking poles, since people didn’t fold them up, or put them away during downhills. They just kept pointing them out in all directions. However, it turned into an excellent opportunity to practise running without minding where I put my feet. I just moved them as fast as I could with my eyes fixed on the scary trekking poles.
The fact that it was so crowded could’ve made for a really nice atmosphere. Prior to the race I toyed with the idea of brushing up my French, or just get the chance to chat with fellow ultra runners from distant corners of the world. But the race was dead quiet. The number of times I heard runners talk to each other, could be counted on one hand. None of the “Good job!”, “Well done!”, “Keep it up!” that you normally hear during ultras. Not even when facing the most stunning sunset of our lifetimes, did people share the experience. Some stopped to pull out their iPhones to take pictures, while I turned to the guy next to me, said it was so beautiful I had to cry, only to get a very surprised look back and nothing more. There was something strange going on here, like an anonymity that affected everyone.
Frankly — the crowd and the many quiet runners were not my thing at all. It wasn’t until the very last part of my too short race, that I could finally tune into nature, enjoy the full moon, the stars so close that I could almost touch them, and the warm breeze. Even on 2500 meters of altitude the wind was still warm, even at night. So much beauty and so little time to savour it.
The cut-off times during the first part of UTMB don’t allow for anything out of the plan. 900 runners DNFd this year, and not all of them due some trouble other than being just a little bit too slow. Complete 8 k in two hours! Complete 5 k in one hour! Sounds easy enough on paper, but very hard in real life. And if things are just a tiny bit off, it’s even harder. Add to the equation that you have to do a 1000 meters of ascent in those two hours, or 700 meters of technical descent during that one hour, and it turns into something almost impossible.
The nausea I suffered from was my main issue. I couldn’t stand the cheese and sausages they served at the aid stations. I downed the bouillon, but it wasn’t the solid energy I needed. I started making mistakes and I started doing really stupid things. I stopped and let a runner pass just because I couldn’t stand the way he smelled. Only to have to stay a couple of meters behind him when he slowed down, until I finally decided I just had to hold my breath and try to bypass him. I was being too careful — tried my best not to fall on the muddy, slippery and technical second downhill. I even tried not to get my feet wet, since they were feeling soooo good and running straight through the small rivers (instead of spending time finding a good way to pass) would’ve destroyed that lovely feeling.
I also did things that are considered smart in normal ultra races — like trying to pace myself in the beginning of the race, and not run too fast. This is ususally a good idea when you're embarking on a 170k long journey. And I sat down for a few minutes, forcing myself to eat, trying to let the nausea pass. Because you have to eat, and you have to eat early in the race.
I even tried to be smart before we travelled to France — in training and preparing. I trained just as much as my injury allowed me to, with the result that I was in OK shape on race day. But OK isn’t good enough when it comes to the UTMB. And had prepared for the worst weather possible, hence my race vest was full of actually useful gear, instead of gear that would just barely pass the standards in the list of mandatory equipment.
I was trying to be smart in every way I knew how to, with all the experience I’ve gained from running long ultras, when instead I should’ve been just running — head on, high speed, with a light backpack and not minding getting my feet wet. I should've been moving forward, instead of focusing on the energy levels in my system. I should’ve just kept running, without the slightest thought of the long, demanding task ahead. Because running as fast as I could all the time, would’ve been my only chance to make it to the next check point within the time limit.
The Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc is a dream that gets into your heart and soul. It gets a hook on you. It is the impossible challenge, the one you can only dream to finish. To me, even more so now that I know just how impossible it can be. Not finishing at my first attempt, hasn’t made me change focus. Instead I want to finish more than ever.
Now I have to finish.