As I sit down to write about The North Face Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc 2013 (UTMB) I instantly begin to smile. The elation I felt during and after the race seem too good to be true. Of course, I have a selective memory in regards to racing. If things go moderately well I tend to forget the low points. But there are always low points. Being able to minimize and ride through the darker moments is always a priority. It doesn’t always work out. But every so often, to my utter delight, it does.
I arrived in Chamonix in July and spent the weeks leading up to the race training on the course and surrounding trails. “Training” sounds like a chore. It was more like living in paradise. I fully embraced the lifestyle here. Stopping at refuges for lunch, skinny dipping in glacial lakes, perfecting the art of French leisure with midday naps and indulgently long meals, using red wine and chocolate as gourmet recovery fuel, and berry picking my way around Mont Blanc. All of these activities were good distractions from thinking too much about the race. Yet, as the end of August drew near I started to have a feeling I haven’t had since I first started doing longer races: butterflies. UTMB intimidated me with its massive amount of climbing (+30,000ft ) and overall difficulty. The mix of nervousness & excitement persisted until the morning of the race when I was finally able to calm my mind.
The start of UTMB is unlike anything I’ve experienced in the US. Imagine a gigantic block party with swarms of people, blaring music and wacky dancing. Now imagine having +2300 runners stampede through the party. To describe it as unique is an understatement. I raced here last year and knew it would take off ridiculously fast. And it did. I saw no point in sprinting out of the start gate so I settled into a somewhat easy rhythm for the first couple hours. I tried to soak in the entire experience from the amazing energy of the crowds, to the beautiful scenery. The first 20 miles went by in a flash.
My fellow TNF teammate Jez Bragg and I chit chatted our way up to Col du Bonhomme. I was grateful to have a climbing partner as the darkness set in. It was such a pleasant time that I practically forgot I was racing. It felt more like a training run with a good friend. Eventually I thought my incessant chatter was starting to annoy Jez (he will claim otherwise because he is a gentleman) so I decided to test my leg strength and pick up the pace over the summit. To my surprise, my legs felt better and better as the night wore on. Not to sound too much like a hippie but things started to flow naturally both physically and mentally. (Nope, that definitely sounded like something a flower child would say!). There’s a magical quality to running in the dark. I always imagine the secret creatures of the world, such as fairies and gnomes, coming out at night. (Not doing a great job of convincing the reader I’m not a fruit loop). The stars were bright and the temperature was warm. I was very happy.
I steadily made my way up the next couple of climbs, alternating between running alone and with other racers. Since I do 99% of my training solo I love being able to run with people during races. By people, I mean men. Here’s where I get on my feminist soap box. UTMB is roughly 10% women. The dearth of females in ultra-running, especially in 100 mile races, is a topic for another day but really, come on ladies! You are surrounded by fit, spandex clad men (great for checking out the merchandise) and the spectators & volunteers go bonkers whenever they see a chick. I think I ran all of thirty minutes with other women this year. For shame I say! Anyway……
I was feeling pretty peppy as I cruised into the Courmayeur aid station (77km). I was stoked to see my crew and TNF friends. I took their enthusiasm with me as I headed up the rather challenging climb out of town. At the Bonatti refuge I was greeted by none other than Lizzy Hawker, my running idol and dear friend. Due to an injury Lizzy was unable to run this year. If it was me, I wouldn’t have wanted to watch the race, let alone spend all night in the cold manning an aid station. However, Lizzy is in a category all her own. She is beyond a class act. Everyone in the sport could learn from her graciousness and humble demeanor. She gave me a giant hug and words of advice that turned out to be very helpful later in the race. Someone snapped a pic of us, capturing a moment of true friendship I will never forget.
By the time I reached the top of Grand Col de Ferret it was pretty foggy and windy. My headlamp started to fade drastically, probably because I had it on the max setting. Unfortunately my back up lamp had somehow turned on in my pack, leaving only a dim light. I tried fumbling with my extra batteries but I couldn’t get them in properly. I ended up using the flashlight app on my iphone on the descent. It worked surprisingly well. By the time I reached the bottom the sun was coming out. It was breathtakingly beautiful. A clear, crisp morning with wisps of mist rising out of the valley. Tres magnifique!
I was happy to see my crew and friends again at La Fouly (108km). If I’m feeling decent I try not to stop too long at the aid stations, usually less than a few minutes. It might have served me better to take a little more time because amidst all the chaos of coming in like a tornado I misheard my friend giving me an update on my position. I thought she said there was a woman 2 minutes behind me. Sacre bleu! I stared running like a fire had been lit under my bum. I booked it to the next aid station, constantly feeling like I was going to be passed at any moment. When I saw my friend again I asked her if the next woman was still a couple minutes back. No, she said, there was a man 2 minutes in front of me, not a woman 2 minutes behind me! I had ended up passing the dude when I picked up the pace out of La Fouly. Oh well! It was actually the kick in the rear I needed anyway.
I was still feeling relatively good but was starting to get nauseous on the climbs. The last 50km were the hardest for me, but I dug deep and fed off the encouragement from my friends and spectators. Once I reached Vallorcine (149 km) I knew I would finish but I felt like it was taking me forever. The climb up to Col des Montets was a slog. I ran it before the race and knew it was going to be a challenge but ooof! Talk about false summits! It’s also one of the more technical sections. All I wanted to do was stop and hang my head between my legs. There were too many people lining the course though. I felt like I had to keep moving. Once I reached La Flegere I knew it was all downhill into the finish. Yahoo! I let my legs go and used gravity to carry me in.<
The last mile winds through town, lined with people cheering and clapping. The energy of the crowd was infectious. I felt like I was sprinting towards the finish. I’ve since seen video and what I was in fact doing was more like exaggerated jogging. My arms were making this bizarre karate-chopping motion. But I’m off on a tangent…..Once I saw the finish line I broke into an enormous shit-eating grin. I am not articulate nor self aware enough to describe the emotions coursing through my body as I crossed the line. Needless to say I was pretty dang elated. Sharing the moment with the entire TNF family made it even sweeter. Running is an individual sport but I wouldn’t be able to do it without the fantastic support I receive from family, friends, and The North Face. I feel very fortunate that all the elements aligned for me and I was able to experience UTMB on a different level than I usually do at other races. I am immensely grateful to my crew, the race organizers, volunteers, spectators, fellow racers, and the mountains themselves for letting me be apart of such an extraordinary event. Merci!
**Editors Note: Rory Bosio placed 1st in the women’s category and 7th overall with a course record time of 22h:37m:27s