Olympics of Trail Running takes place end of August in Chamonix valley since last 15 years. For many, the UTMB races are the ultimate race goal of the whole season. After beautiful warm summer, the weather usually turns overnight and the runners from all over the world are facing brutal weather conditions, rain, hail, snow and biting cold in during the night. Yet this race attracts thousands of us, the runners, who first need to qualify for the races, then we go through the ballot, if we are lucky we get a spot and then we train hard and then we try our best on the race day. It is not always a happy ending and this year was no different for more than 30% of those who entered.
Me, I was supposed to run CCC already last year but my obsessive training plan led me to stress fracture instead. As I had the option to defer my spot, CCC happened to be the A race for 2018. I’m not obsessed about racing, I don’t even like racing (at least that’s what I thought) and I wasn’t that psyched really. Everyone was curious if I’m ready, and to be honest, I felt like everyone was making too much faff around it. I am never ready. I trained and ran the whole summer on those beautiful alpine trails. But ready? You can not predict what will happen on the day. What the mountains will bring.
Since we’ve moved to Chamonix, most of my running was happening on sunny days during the weekend trying to survive the heat. I haven’t really ran through the night or in the rain for last three months. Luckily my friend Aga fancied a run week before the race and honestly, that 20k in pissing rain and mist were the best training run I did for the race in months! Running Trail du Tour des Fiz in July gave me some trust in myself, which is what I was always lacking. At the end of the day, I’m no great runner. Passionate – yes, but nothing special. I don’t race, I run for joy.
Finally the race day was here! I was in 3rd pen for the start what really-really annoyed me. A lot. I knew I could do the first climb from Courmayeur up to Tete de la Tronche quite well while being quite comfortable and not pushing it too much too early. Starting at 9:30 instead 9am, knowing that hundreds of runners were already on the track – the single track! – was very frustrating. I was getting slightly annoyed but just as I was about to get out of my comfort zone, I spotted my friend Carlotta who was taking pictures (just like the one below). That cheered me up so much that I rushed to the very front of the starting line (still pen 3!). Yet is was pretty exciting starting in the front for once and burn the fire in the legs from the very first second.
Obviously, the sensation didn’t last long as everyone in front was running as if there was no tomorrow. Or next 100k to go. So I slowed down into more comfortable pace and in about 20 minutes I managed to mix up with the second pen runners but then we were on single track and the fun was over. Standing in the middle of a mountain unable to move is very frustrating. Especially when you know, you could. And this feeling was brand new to me.
Me? Racing? No. Being competitive? Forget it. I always thought it comes down to character and goals. The reasons why you run. I wasn’t aware this whole racing thing comes down to confidence as well. Confidence that you can. That you are capable. That you are cocky enough not to check what the cut off times are. Having a set goal in mind. I was quietly hoping I can do it in 20-21 hours. Well quietly, I literally said that if I can do it in 21 hours – I would feel like I won it. For myself. Because let’s be honest, the elite women finish in 12 or 13 hours. And that’s far away from my own private victory.
I didn’t even wanted to have a crew but Mags forced me to be there for me. That and all the little unexpected emotions turned the whole rainy cold day into nice memories. Like going up to Bonatti and hearing my name. The hug from Kajsa was so much needed as I was everywhere but not in my happy place. I was trying to chase Dai since the start as he started 15 minutes in front of me and I really needed a company. As I was quite confused on the check point wondering what to do next and where on earth is Dai, Fab was there waving at me that he will take picture of me. I felt as if I was drunk and as much as I was happy to see him I knew I have to go. The whole day after that felt like from an odd dream.
Fast forward to climb down from Grand Col Feret and I was finally accepting the downhill with all the mud and was overtaking every girl I could see in front of me. Damn, that felt actually good. The race mode tasted pretty sweet. But then my running skirt got soaking wet and the only reason rushing downhill to La Foully was getting changed into warm long tights. And my friends Michal and David emerged from the fog 30k in and it brought tears into my eyes. They’ve hitchhiked to Italy and climbed uphill just to see me!
It was checkpoint after checkpoint. From one to another. Waiting desperately to reach the one where Maggie was. Got to Champex still in daylight, where I got changed into dry clothes, got water, was forced to eat some food, and I was off again. I ran past the lake and the camping where we were staying few years back when hiking the Haute Route with my husband. And it was pissing down just like 3 years ago.
There were no views. The only thing to see was mist, fog and muddy path in front of me. Not very scenic and not very inspiring. Checkpoint by checkpoint. And finally I managed to catch Dai! The only picture we have is with me chewing on baguette looking grumpy. Oh regarding food. I couldn’t really eat. Even my beloved Soreen tasted meh. Had about 3 baby foods, 4 Lucho Dillitos, baguette, some soup, oranges and that’s it.
Huffing and puffing trying to keep up with Dai I got the cheat sticks out to get to the top of the hill which happened to be the Swiss-French border. That meant two things: stitches in my shoulders from the poles and that I just need to run home from there. Vallorcine. Last assistance check point and Michael was supposed to be there as he wanted to cycle there to surprise me. When Mags seen my mental state in Trient, she decided f the surprise and told me. It got me through the climb, yet he wasn’t there as he didn’t woke up. Somehow, at that moment it didn’t even matter as I got there and the thought – rather than anything else – that made me get there.
The last climb was changed following the rock fall earlier in the week. I hate the alternative route. Truly madly deeply. It is the same path as the last bit of Mont Blanc Marathon and OCC as well. It kills me every single time. Some 400 metres up and then 300 metres steep down and then up yet another 500m or so to Plan Praz. I was delirious and hallucinating. Packed the cheat sticks in the belt and was trying to just go. Step by step. Staring at the shoes moving in front of me to keep me going. I was imagining that with every step I’m earning one point closer toward the goal. I really wanted to stop and curl in a little ball and sleep. But I had to follow the trainers in front of me. But then some guy overtook me and I couldn’t see her feet anymore. I was confused. And then I looked up. And in the light of the night there was Plan Praz, shining in the night. So I kept going. Wondering who am i and where am I, I asked for coffee. Instant coffee from plastic foldable cup. Best coffee in the world it was.
Race was back on. I ran the last 8k as if I haven’t ran 92k beforehand. I ran like if it was now or never. Then there was La Floria. And then the road. Then the path next to river. Then turn left. And Michael waiting at Super U. And Maggie shouting my name. And Ali on the corner. And Patrik. And James. And Michal with David. And then there was the last corner and finish line. And Lucja with Gobi. And it was exactly 21 hours and 32 seconds since I started the race from Courmayeur the day before. Finished before the sunrise.
*As much as you can dust something in the mud!
Picture credit: David