Heading out of Courmayeur, the feelings I had were a turbulent mix of elation and despair. On the one hand, I was still in the game. I just had to keep getting to the next checkpoint, the next summit, the next valley, but on the other hand there was still 90km to go and the first 80 had been a pretty intense way to warm up. A quick shot of white wine from the town crier and an extended plunge in the oversized and chilly watering trough outside one of the town’s hotels were final highlights before getting back into The Zone and climbing our way out of town and still seemingly ever closer to the Sun.
Every climb now, people were turning around and heading back. I wasn’t feeling their despair, though. I was starting to begin like we were vaulting the fallen – just barely, just enough.
The conversations internally pushing me on now were these:
There’s no pizza for a DNF. (seriously)
Nobody enjoys a fail story, unless it’s utterly spectacular – and I’m talking bones going through other bones, or a start line blood sugar so low it leads to immediate coma.
We’re not doing this again – meaning that to fail now would mean having to come back and suck it all up again.
And of course the obvious consideration of my support team – family, friends, and HOKA ONE ONE AUSTRALIA, as well as Ultra-Trail Australia – who had all tucked in behind me and made sacrifices of their own in addition to just putting up with my training-addled time management and my general demandingness to get here, to this point where I now felt failure was still in hot, though slow, pursuit.
Speaking of heat – how good was the first river crossing before the climb to the refuges? Still in the full sun and heat of the day, most runners had stopped to fill up water but some of us also lay in cold melt waters to cool off. This was a vital 3 or 4 minutes well spent. Cooling the head and torso was like taking an engine out of the red zone just before the gaskets crack or the radiator explodes. Being able to lie in cool running water 4 or 5 inches deep, I could actually feel my deeper tissues regain some kind of normality.
After a steady climb (about a ¾ Kedumba) we contoured along a valley wall, rising up to hit aid stations at the famous Italian refuges, Bertone and Bonatti. I knew Bonatti from Tor Des Geants but the way that we arrived there was different than expected and seemed to drag on and on as we edged closer and closer to the head of the valley with our destination constantly failing to appear. The station 5km after Bonatti had a 6:15pm cutoff that I was of course aiming to get well within. But by the time we hit Bonatti it was after 5pm, there was a sense of heart in throat, and a couple of runners around me abandoned because they felt it was futile to go on.
But I focused on the runners who projected urgency as they sped up into the distance. After a hot and depleting day, this was now a matter of keeping food in play, enough insulin to feel energy available and not get the additional dysfunctional dehydration of high sugars, but not so much I’d be stranded on a low sugar if nausea cranked back up during the push for time targets. Cue the circus music as the juggling monkeys in clown costumes on unicycles teeter past.
After surging and backing off and surging again, reaching Arnouvaz with 10 minutes to spare felt like a major step up. The time cutoffs ahead of me now weren’t quite so strong, given an expectation that runners going into their second night would be slowing. I grabbed some water and Coke and a couple of pieces of banana in the checkpoint and went straight through the other side, getting a safe distance from the timing mats to sit by the river on the other side and reassess before dusk took hold.
I did check my feet, which I probably could have done without – the check, not the feet I mean Footwear – gold. The new Mafate Speed 2 (HOKA ONE ONE of course) was everything I’d hoped and more. I’d spent 24 hours trying to locate any size 14 within any kind of deliverable distance of Chamonix when a wear test pair miraculously appeared via the French crew at the UTMB expo. Huge thank you to Anthoine for helping these happen. They were performing like superlight, highly technical, maximally cushioned next generation adaptations of the original great idea of HOKA’s Mafate with a little bit of space technology for faster feel. With a wider fit, more pliable midsole, and really deep sticky Vibram outsole, these were my dream shoe.
But my socks were another story. My favourite ultralong distance socks had developed a hole at the big toe 2 hours before race start. Timing much? So instead of my usual 2-layer favourites, I’d switched to similarly cocoony single layer pair with a higher synthetic blend. If you’re not a sock connoisseur, what that means is a greater propensity to bunch because of greater motility. Dual layer socks aim to reduce friction and associated hotspots and blistering mechanically by essentially having one layer sit motionless against the foot, the other against the inside of the shoe, and any friction avoided between the layers. The single layer socks I’d gone with as my Plan B pair were putting tissue damage where it was going to be noticeable later. Having not grabbed any alternates, there was very little to do beside some retaping. This is another handy use for poles – they become your tape storage tools for when such situations arise.
Getting back to your feet from pausing in an ultra is always special, either way. Beginning the long climb out of the waterway and toward Col Feret, one of the highest points on course, there were false starts and a sense of real resistance before any rhythm really resumed.
This is also an especially spectacular section of the course, shared with Tor Des Géants. Knowing that we were in for endless switchbacks as we zigzagged toward proper high country I kept my focus pretty local. The halfway point was another short hit of vomiting which barely broke my trudging stride. Every runner was mimicking the pattern of those around them now, just with timings out of sync – trudge, pause, get passed, cough, maybe heave, move again slowly, overtake someone else who had paused, repeat.
One useful new trick for this race was use of about 2 square feet of my space blanket. Instead of putting on jackets to manage the cold of night, putting this shiny material over my abdomen under my shirt kept me perfectly warm as long as I was still moving, and also seemed to improve stomach function. Anticipating the colder high conditions, I put on thin arm sleeves, a thin beanie and a buff around my neck, but felt an immediate almost allergic reaction to them. It was as if my body was pushing heat out toward these garments to get rid of them. It was all part of the war of attrition UTMB and I were waging on each other. I unwound them and kept climbing.
As we finally drew into sight of the survival pod – large yellow sealable chambers delivered by helicopter and manned by mountain guides – at Col Feret, it was clear that the clouds which had been building throughout the evening were more than just cosmetic. Just minutes after we passed through the highest part of the route, the strobe of lightning and rumble of epic thunder filtered out across the heavy skies above us. It was still hot though, so there was excitement and relief as the first big fat water droplets hit.
And so began the 20km descent from big sky to small township of La Fouly. It becomess a cruel rundown once you’re back within the treeline, with gradients that allow running but also punish it, and narrow turning single track that keeps you working the whole way. Referencing the race sticker arm tattoo that was giving me all the information I needed, I anticipated a couple of small upward tilts before finally hitting the checkpoint. Instead, it’s one of those twisting trails that leads you toward the sound of a town and cowbells which you think are part of the race, and then has you climb almost counterintuitively away from them for a sustained period, and it does this 2 or 3 times until you really begin to doubt what you’re doing.
For probably the first time in the last 28 hours I was not just running/hiking/suffering with other runners, but working with them. I was flanked by an American and I think a French runner, and whoever was out front was picking up the reflective tape ahead and keeping us on track. But then doubt crept in.
“Weren’t we meant to cross into town back there? I thought those cowbells were people at the checkpoint.”
“Nah,” said the American. “They’re just cows, those bells have been going for two days.”
Now I was concerned, because that sounded like someone fatigue hallucinating. Cowbells in a European race only have cows attached about half the time.
Shit, shit, shit. As we crossed a bridge over another river and ran away from the noise of civilization, what if we were missing a checkpoint? What if we were going to turn around too late to time in? What if we were going to run 110km to just piss the whole thing away by thinking someone else had a clue what was going on? Running uncertainly onward into the darkened forest along a raging river way after it felt like we should have hit an aid station felt frivolous.
So I phoned a friend, and we had a lovely conversation about what a donkeypunch La Fouly is and what it should look like and where it should be. Let’s face it – what Frenchman doesn’t appreciate a random navigation focused call from their Australian whiskey-drinking partner at 10pm on a Saturday?
Relief, when 10 minutes later the white tents of the aid station appeared. Anxiety too, as it was evident that packup was well under way. We entered a crowded humid tent, with some bodies that were quitting while others applied rainpants and jackets in an almost reflexive response as the rain really came down hard now. For the first time in the race I put my jacket on, heading out now just 7 minutes before the cut. There was still a lot of ground to cover and hopefully time to be made.
Just like the low point of Courmayeur and the chase to Arnouvaz, now came another turning point in my race. I threw a tow rope around a Japanese runner and it probably would ultimately get me home. Run/shuffling once again without a jacket, under cooling rain through hot air, I latched on to this runner about 20 feet in front of me and just matched his pace for nearly the next 2 hours. As we pulled through the gnome town of Praz de Fort I’d had my first real sense of travelling smoothly in perhaps the entire preceding 30 hours. We grabbed generously served midnight coffees from the front yard of a woman who actually had a small Bambi unicorn statue in her menagerie. I know how efficient I was being because I didn’t get a photo of it. Can you imagine? Unicorn Bambi!!?!
The climb now to Champex Lac felt like a beastier demon than its numbers suggested it had any right to. But climbing steep dusty trails through enchanted forest, we would then hit a horizontal trail taking us deeper into the forest, almost to a destination, and then throw us back into a steep dusty climb, and then another horizontal trail, and so on. The sense of déjà vu here was eerie. Some kind of gingerbread grandma in a wolfskin cooking kids in a pot of oil surely wasn’t too far away.
And then Stephanie Case appeared chirpily out of nowhere. We knew Stephanie, a Canadian runner, from the 4 Deserts and Tor Des Geants, but bumping into her on a dry and dusty disorienting switchback in the middle of wherever we were at 2 in the morning was not expected. It was a hilariously unexpected encounter in fact and a reminder that the whole world beyond our dirty little scenic suffer bubble was still happening. Calling out that she’d see us at Champex and it wasn’t far to go she headed downhill in the opposite direction on some kind of mission. It’s worth noting that the approach to Champex was incredibly distinctive. Not only were there massive mounds of shattered granite bubbling with living water throughout the forest, there were also trailside carvings from single large polished pieces of wood of mythical forest creatures and even giant slug statues.
Other trailside scenery included sleeping trailrunners sprawled on their packs, elaborately coloured rocks which pretended to be sleeping trailrunners, and ornate water fountains which also turned out to just be elaborately coloured rocks that weren’t sleeping trailrunners.
Champex Lac was my self-declared favourite checkpoint, simply because they had a seriously chunky tomato pasta that felt like winning. The woodchip floor covering of the entire tent also added a certain something. Stephanie arrived about 5 minutes after me and immediately set to making sure I had everything that I needed. She even rocked my world with her baked potatoes – these were gold. I asked if she might have any kind of access to a Garmin charger as I hadn’t done anything to charge my batteries at Courmayeur and even though the whole thing was a bit of an afterthought, the altimeter as a way of knowing how close the next location was had become a real sanity management tool. So I was totally blown away when she took off her own GPS watch and handed it to me without a second thought.
I was properly caffeinated, I was well enough fed to function, my tech was fired up, and without even knowing that I’d passed nearly 200 people in the last 3 hours, I was feeling like I’d regained some momentum. In 45 minutes ahead of the cut, and out with 20 to spare, the second night was feeling more probable than just possible.
The next stage was 17km, rolling up and down into Trient. The physio that I had seen in Chamonix before the race had explained to me that the final breakdown of three climbs was that each became progressively harder with the last being the toughest. Knocking over the first of these as the sun was rising, it felt like the last 2 were now very attainable. I was looking at it as a 3-rep training session, and had the mental benefit of having done some tough 3-rep sessions in preparation for the race. I didn’t necessarily have 140km and 8,000m in my legs when I did them, but let’s try not to think about that.
Again, into Trient with more than an hour clear, Stephanie making sure I was in possession of all essential faculties, even as she made time to get into her Angry Bird costume, and out again with minimal delay. The second last climb was Catogna and surprisingly it wasn’t as destroying as it could have been. Sunrise always helps of course, and I just kept repeating my mantra that these climbs were just the starts of the climbs we’d done at Tor.
Running … ok, waddling… down the grassy slopes of Vallorcine I got an even bigger rush than sunrise from the Kiwi contingent rolling out to meet me. Stephanie’s inflatable elephant and the bright orange sideboob of her nurse’s costume were certainly mood lifters but seeing Tarawera RDs Paul Charteris and Tim Day and Tim’s wife Kylie all there yelling for me and telling me I was crushing it – not strictly true but hey, take it – was just awesome. Kiwis are bastards on a rugby pitch but most other places they can be a bit of alright. Love you guys J
It’d be great to wrap this up quickly and say the last climb was just a detail but it nearly brought the house crumbling to the ground. Running out of Vallorcine was spectacular. We trekked along the bubbling gurgling alpine melt stream with its electric blues and greens and electrically coloured mosses and vegetation. Herds of boulders grazed in the water because sleep deprivation can be a funny thing.
I waved at a woman who was attacking out of the sun because she looked like our friend Alina from Ultra-Trail Australia, but she wasn’t Alina and was instead attached to the three Frenchmen just ahead of me.
“Sorry, she looked like my friend from Australia,” I said.
“Yes, but you are a long way from Australia,” said Frenchman 1.
“And so is my friend.” Touché.
And then it loomed ahead of us, Montet. I had seen this climb in action last year, but at night when torches would begin to scale its face at ridiculously steep angles and then display fear and doubt in the way they flicked up and down, slowed, and sagged.
But we were going up in the full heat of midday. Even drinking massively and dumping a large bottle of water over my head before starting this fully exposed climb, I had drunk most of my water before the climb was even half down. The heat exhaustion of the day before was reignited by the sun’s bullying fingers and soon enough I felt like all strength had leaked from my body, leaving me with at least 400 metres of elevation gain still to climb. It was dry, hot, increasingly deathly, and however high we climbed it seemed we only found that there was much more still to climb. The best way to describe the feeling is that it was something like being repeatedly kicked in the legs, fed a mouthful of salt, thrown into a frying pan, and told to think only of hot and uncomfortable things.
Paul from the French office had been tracking me and he and his partner appeared, fresh and smiley, when I was about two-thirds of the way up and headed toward yet another false summit. Their company was more than just a welcome distraction, it was probably the final burst of energy I needed to get off that climb, across the exposed and slightly cooler Tete Aux Vents, and begin the final descent to Flegere and Chamonix in significantly improved spirits. Seeing Aussie mates at a nearby stream was also a bonus, but to feel one of the hardest darkest parts of a 100-miler happen with less than 15km to go, and in the full light of day was quite an experience.
The last rundown to Chamonix wasn’t truly a blur, it was more a dustbowl painstorm of unexpected anguish and stumbling. Mincing over another root and avoiding another ditch and pushing off yet another rock, I was never running trail again, well at least not for 7 days, there was a chance of trying to hike tomorrow.
And finally we were in Chamonix, roads, pavement, recognisable features. And Jo running up to meet me. She’d had a tough day at TDS and the whole of UTMB I hadn’t ever had the headroom or presence of mind to text and see how she’d gone or if she was ok, and now we were both just being emo and semi-fragile on the way to the finish line. And man Joe was there too I think. It was spectacularly pixelated.
Hitting the pavement beside the river, a volunteer ducked under the fencing and joined me. We ran together for a little way, laughing and high-5ing. He said he was Jean-Michel (I think) andhe would run in with me because there was a celebration at 4pm on stage to acknowledge the volunteers and how this race couldn’t happen without them. I was totally stoked about this, I’d been thanking volunteers all race when I could actually speak, although I think I butchered the language in each of the 3 countries we ran through. But then he said I would need to slow down if he was going to run with me, but he was already off the back.
This was adrenalin. This was joy. This was a sense that no matter how hard I blew myself apart now, I could still finally make it to the finish line. This was that sense that even though I’d forgotten the way through town I just had to stay at this pace and push through the last minute of this whole massive epic adventure. Running past cheering spectators, surprised diners, and finally that finish chute just seemed to grow long then short and I was at the arch. Utter elation. Collapsing into the arms of friends. Completely spent. Seeing Jo and Joe and Alina and Kerry and Ali and everyone all together in a moment that so many times almost didn’t happen.