Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Courage: My Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc Experience


Courage Stephanie!

Photo: Flash-sport
Through tear stained eyes I look up and nod a silent thank you. No more “allez” or “bon journey” as I heard earlier in the day. Instead those who saw me wished me courage. They understood and wished  me strength to continue.

Courage

At the time, when completing the task at hand was overwhelming, it was a glimmer of hope I held on to. Courage to face my suffering head on. Courage to persevere and not give up. And once again, I found myself in that dark place, where all I could do was just continue moving forward.

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Photo: Kristen Kortebein/iRunFar
I was ready to have a good race at UTMB. More importantly, I was ready to be normal, smiley Stephanie while racing. My struggles at Western States just a few weeks earlier were still somewhat fresh and had taken a lot out of me, physically and mentally. I wasn’t ready to push myself into that deep of a hole again. It took me weeks to come out of it, and I just wanted a positive experience at UTMB.

I arrived in Chamonix early, and spent my time just playing in the mountains. It was complete bliss and fully recharged me my mind and body. By race week I was excited to run again. 

Photo: Matt Trappe
So what happened? In comparison, my dark struggles at Western States were a cake walk compared to what I experienced at UTMB. Yet again I learned something about myself as I struggled for so long.

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DAY 1

The start of UTMB is something I will never forget. After waiting all day twiddling my thumbs, we walked down to the start line around 5:15pm for our 6:00pm start. Downtown was buzzing with people and excitement. There were literally thousands of people in the streets, racing and spectating. It was quite the scene!

Lining up for the start
Photo: Matt Trappe
As the countdown began and we got ready to undertake our journey I felt an odd sense of calm. I was ready to go…..
Photo: Michel Cottin
And suddenly we were off, running down main street and trying not to be run over by men with full length poles sticking out like spears. It was kind of crazy, but I managed to stay on my feet.

Sometime after the crowd thinned out, I found myself stride for stride with Zach. Who would have thought? We had each planned on running our own races, but found ourselves running the same speed. I’ll take it! It was awesome to spend some of the early miles together when we were both happy and enjoying the race. Running into the first big aid station at Saint Gervais we were both high fiving the little kids lining the streets. What a cool experience!

Photo: Meghan Hicks
Zach and I continued to run together through the next aid station, where we saw our crew for the first time. Chris and Elisa Cheng had made the trip over from Bend to crew for Zach and I. I think they were a little surprised to see us running together, but it made it easier to find us. We refueled quickly, and left Les Contamines together, running into the night.

This was the beginning of the end for me.

It’s well known that I’m a morning person. I hate staying up late and I start to fall apart if I get tired and it’s getting past my bedtime. It’s not awesome. During road trips I’d rather wake up at 4:00am then drive into the night. I just shut down. The same happens when I’m racing. I’ve only had a few experiences of running through the night, but they’ve all gone rather horribly. Run Rabbit Run last year, I DNFed at mile 80 around 4:00am. I dropped due to a knee injury, but was also not loving life for the previous 4 hours. My stomach was in complete shambles and I could hardly stay awake. Similarly, during the Grand Traverse skimo race, which begins at midnight, I could not fuel well until the sun came up, 6 hours into the race. I know this about myself, but I don’t know how to fix it. It’s like my body rejects being active, or doing anything but sleep during the middle of the night. It’s ok when this occurs late in a race, because I know it won’t be long. But when it happens early in a race it’s a problem, because early is when the good running and fueling happen. I have some ideas and am anxious to try them out. Elisa suggested that I becoming nocturnal for a month or so to prepare. Rave anyone? But seriously I do want to figure this out because I don’t want to do limit my racing because of it.

Climbing out of Les Contamines (30k) was actually quite pleasant. It wasn’t too cold, and there was a full moon. And Zach and I were still together. It was a tough climb, but early on and still feeling good. The bonfires, music, and cheers from the spectators also didn’t hurt. We settled into the long climb up to the Croix du Bonhomme (44k).

It started to get tough for me here. It was late and the terrain was steep and technical. After descending from Col de la Sienge, we and began a fairly technical section up Col des Pyramides Calcaires (62K). I couldn’t believe no one told me about this part since many had given me advice about the tough sections beforehand. I later found out this was a “bonus” section. Lucky us! I struggled to climb both up and down on the loose rock, trying to save my legs. It was windy, I was moving slowly, and my stomach was starting to feel off. I didn’t love it.

The miles between Col des Pyramides Calcaires and Courmayeur (80k) are somewhat blurry to me right now. I was pretty sleepy and just responded to the terrain in front of me. I wasn’t moving very well nor was I feeling very well, but I kept moving forward. There was still time to turn it around.


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DAY 2

Reaching Courmayeur marked the end of the first day for me. In my mind I had broken the course into three sections: 
1) Start to Courmayeur
2) Courmayeur to Champex-Lac
3) Champex-Lac to Chamonix 

This allowed me to focus on what I was doing rather than think about the overwhelming task of getting around the entire mountain.

I entered Courmayeur in a slightly distressed state. I was very happy to see Elisa and Chris as I entered the aid station. Elisa offered me a buffet of all my favorite race foods I’d packed. I just shook my head. Just fill my bladder with coke. It was starting; I was fueling with just liquids already. Ugh. Normally I switch to soda during the last 10-20 miles of race, not at halfway. I also sat down for the first time ever (@Torsten- taking your advice!) and ate a plate of pasta. It was a nice break, and I could have just stayed there the rest of the night.


I sloshed my way out of Courmayeur and realized that the bladder in my pack was getting full. Like really full. I laughed out loud…..the coke! Running with fizzy coke in my pack made it fill with CO2. I had to stop several times to let the air out. Noted.

Sunrise on Saturday came much earlier than I had expected. Maybe I was a little slower than expected, but either way the alpenglow was a welcome sight. By the time I climbed out of Courmayeur and reached Bertone (85k), it was light. And I was so happy. My stomach was starting to settle and I was feeling much more awake.

Somewhere in Italy
Photo: Flash-sport
The section of running from Bertone to Col Ferret is my absolute favorite. I’d done it twice before the race because it was just so beautiful. As a bonus, it happens to be a nice runnable section. I started to move a little better, but my lack of fueling was definitely catching up with me. I didn’t have much energy and I was starting to get emotional. Upon arrival at the next aid station, Bonatti (92k), I burst into tears. I could not help myself. I sobbed and sobbed. One of the volunteers sat and hugged me and fed me soup. This when I first heard the phrase “Courage Stephanie!”  I don’t know who those volunteers were, but they were the first in a series of people who helped me find the strength to continue.

The next section is also a bit of a blur for me. It was starting to get really hot and the coke was not really cutting it. I literally stumbled up Col Ferret and down the other side into Switzerland. In a better state I would have loved this section. It was smooth, buttery trail that descended all the way to La Fouly. Next time.
Photo:Flash-sport
As I neared La Fouly I recognized the blue skirt of my TNF teammate Fernanda Macial just ahead of me. My heart went out for her. We arrived in La Fouly together and both took a seat and began sobbing. Again, I couldn’t control it. I was so emotional and distraught. After several minutes (or 30, but who’s counting) Fernanda asked if I was going to drop. I shook my head no. I had to at least make it to Champex-Lac to see Elisa. “Then let’s just walk together” So Fernanda and I left together, determined to make it 17k to the next aid station. We shared only a few words, but mostly just suffered together. I’m not happy Fernanda was having a tough race, but it was so comforting to be together. I would not have made it by myself! Fernanda waited for me while I sat in the shade a few times along the course. I was out of coke, water, and fuel. It was a very slow, tough, tear filled section. But we did it together.

Fernanda and I walked into the Champex-Lac aid station holding hands, both sobbing. I’m sure it was a sight to see. I didn’t even care at that point. I was just done. Physically, mentally, and spiritually. Elisa grabbed my hand and led me over to a table. I took off my pack and just sobbed. Elisa hugged and comforted me. “I’m done” I told her. “Just take some time. Lay down, eat, rest. Then you can go back out there.” She was not going to take no for an answer.

No words. Champex-Lac
I spent the next 90 minutes coming back to life. I had given up at racing at this point, so I took as long as I needed to summon up the strength to go back out there. I took a nap, got my feet attended to, and ate bowl after bowl of pasta Bolognaise (thanks Chris!) Elisa really had to convince me to keep going. I didn’t think I could do it. But she told me “You are tougher than you think” Am I?

Starting to feel alive
After I started to feel human again, Elisa urged me to go on. At least make it to the next aid station, then we could reassess. I wasn’t sure, but I decided to try. The next section was 17k, but with a pretty big climb. I was looking at 3.5- 4 hours on the trail before the next checkpoint. “Courage Stephanie” I could at least try……

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DAY 3

I left Champex-Lac in decent spirits. My plan was to walk. Just move forward. I was a little embarrassed about how long I’d spent at Champex-Lac, but it seemed necessary. I had no idea what place I was in, and I didn’t care. I wasn’t racing anymore, I was surviving.

It’s a good thing I didn’t know what the next section was like or it would have been difficult to convince me to go on. I knew it was a big climb and descent, but I didn’t know how rocky it was. I found myself using all fours to get over some of the boulders. It was brutal and slow.

About halfway through the section I started to feel a little emotional again. This became a theme: I’d refuel and leave the aid stations with a smile, then start to run out of energy and enter the next aid station in tears. I started to recognize this pattern and realized that when I started to whimper it meant I needed some fuel.

Entering into Trient (144k), I was greeted by some familiar faces from the Bay area. These were the next bunch of people that helped me find strength to continue. I can’t even say how much their encouragement meant to me.

I had it in my mind I was going to finish, so I tried to limit my time at the Trient aid station. I still sat down and ate, refilled my pack, and listen to Elisa urging me on. It was starting to get late in the day and I was going to need a headlamp soon. We decided if I rushed out asap I could get to Vallorcine still in the daylight. So without thinking too much, I was on my way, through a tunnel of my cheering Bay area friends (thanks guys!!)

On the climb out of Trient I had my next surprise. I heard someone say my name up ahead, and I looked up to see a familiar face. “Is that you?!” And indeed it was: my good friend Wam, who I took classes with at Oregon State and lives in Chamonix. We had been trying to meet up earlier in the month without success. It absolutely made my day to see him out on the trail. And during a time that I really needed some encouragement. Wam bounded up the hill like it was nothing and kept cheering me on over the climb. It was so uplifting.

I descended into Vallorcine, yet again in tears. But this was it…..the last section. I was going to make it around the f$%^%$ mountain. Again I saw the familiar faces and actually smiled through my tears. I sat down with Elisa and she made me some bread and cheese sandwiches, while Topher gave me the low down on the last 10 miles.

As I left the aid station I was overwhelmed with a sense of humility. Here I was at rock bottom, transparent for all to see. I passed my Bay area friends and I caught of glimpse of Magda Boulet. Her eyes said it all. She understood my suffering.

I started off down the trail where Kim Gaylord joined me for a few minutes. “So I just saw Zach……and he’s racing in his underwear” WHAT? I turned to Kim in disbelief and started laughing. Of course Zach is racing in his underwear. Apparently his shorts were chafing so he decided to ditch them and race in his tighty blackies. Ha.

I also saw another friend, Sarah Willis, from way back to my Nordic ski days in Minnesota. She made me smile a few times and was just there to give me strength for a few minutes. All of these people are the reason WHY I found the courage to finish.

The last 10 miles of UTMB were actually quite pleasant. Well, maybe that’s a stretch. But they were less arduous than what I’d anticipated. The moon was out (again) it was a beautiful night. Despite how wrecked I was feeling, I enjoyed covering that stretch of trail more than any other portion. It also helped that I could smell the barn. Actually, I could see the barn. In the distance there were some small glinting lights….really far down.

The last descent was long. Early on I tripped and fell on a sharp rock. Not a good start. I decided to just take my time and make it in one piece. Not a competitive bone left in my body. Or so I thought.

Sprinting for the finish line
As the lights got bigger and bigger and I could start to hear Chamonix, I heard footsteps behind me. I didn’t think much of it because men were passing me left and right the whole night. Suddenly, the footsteps appeared next to me and it was a female. “Oh hell no. I’m not getting passed in the last 2k.” Something in me flipped and it was on. I cranked down my pace and was ready to battle. We hit the pavement stride for stride. Where were these legs all day? We made our way through town and I found myself out ahead. I kept moving though because I really didn’t want to be passed in the final 100 meters. I flew through the finish, in a 5:43 mile, according to Strava. Lol.

So satisfying.

Reflecting on what we just did......
Photo: Manu Vilaseca
Crossing the finish line was amazing, despite being hours after I’d hopped. I was greeted by Zach, who wished me a happy anniversary. Yes, we raced UTMB on our first anniversary. Fitting.

I walked out of the finish area, leaning on Elisa for support, and told her “I think you are my very bestest friend in the world” Who stays up for 30 hours to chase you around a mountain for 3 days?! I am constantly amazed by the selflessness of her support. I am one lucky girl!



Post-race Zach and I spent our anniversary eating and not touching each other. Too painful! We did have a nice dinner in Paris a few days later to celebrate though.

Happy Anniversary!
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In case you skipped the long-winded version, here are the cliff notes:

  •          I ran around Mont Blanc
  •          I suffered greatly and yet again "learned something" about myself
  •          Many people helped me find the courage to continue along the way
  •          I kicked it in the last mile (5:43) in a sprint out for 8th place
  •          Zach and I celebrated our first anniversary at the finish line of UTMB
  •          I am lucky to have so many great friends in my life!


THANK YOU!!!

First of all, thanks to Elisa Cheng: you are the best crew and friend a girl could ask for! You really are the reason why I finished. Thanks for being there for me and chasing me around the mountain for 30 hours!

Next, thanks to Zach for running some early miles with me. What fun! And for greeting me at the finish line to celebrate our anniversary......in your underwear, no less :) 

Thanks to my sponsors: The North Face, Clif Bar, Flora, Nathan Sports, Julbo, Drymax, Black Diamond, and Garmin.  You make it possible for me to have these experiences! Special thanks to Julbo for the opportunity to race and to Nathan Sports for playing a big role race day. Stevie you are the best! 

And last but not least, thanks to my friends out there on course! Your words of encouragement meant more to me than you’ll ever know.


Uf-dah. What a day. Here’s to a race with a shorter blog write up in the near future!

8 comments:

  1. Way to gut it out, bravo! Thanks for writing the long-winded version for those of us who were curious about what went down :) It will be interesting to hear if you figure out how to deal with being a 'morning person' in races - I'm exactly the same way and have struggled in situations where I have to be awake late at night and function like a human being.

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    1. Aw thanks! I have some ideas about getting better at running through the night. I'd be happy to share after I try them out. Best of luck to you too!

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  2. Love everything about this! - Karyn

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    1. Thanks so much! I'm glad I could share it :)

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  3. Beautifully done. Congrats on pushing through and thank you for putting it down on paper. Very emotional even now to reflect on such an incredible experience (much further down the line). Incredible.

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  4. Thank you, Stephanie, for your bravery, courage, and transparency. After an incredibly tough week of training for me, reading your story of courageous perseverance was exactly what I needed. All too often I experience that empty tank sobbing. Thank you for helping me learn some new things, and especially for encouraging me to keep pressing on. You are one of my top running role models. Thank you thank you! I can't wait to read more about your races. God bless you!

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  5. What a great report! you are SO STRONG!

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