Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc - Race Report

The really short version: finished in 41 hours 31 minutes, 168.7 kilometres with 9,796 metres of ascending and 9,796 metres of descending.  823rd out of 2,445 racers.  On the second night, I tried three separate times to sleep for about 20 minutes, but started running again when I wasn't falling asleep after five minutes of trying.

The slightly longer version: went out way too fast because I was nervous about a time cut-off early in the race, tired myself out much too early, then battled to hang on for about 140 remaining kilometres. My leg pain that had me on crutches and halted my running a couple of months ago came back only 15 km into the race (but in the other leg!?). My stomach started to go on me a couple of times around 30 km but it wasn't too bad and I was able to bring it back a couple of times by easing the intensity a little. The bigger issue is that I sprained my ankle badly at 45 km on a downhill during the night. I got back up and tried to run on it but it would just roll again. I really didn't want to quit after everything I'd gone through this summer with working through the injury, and travelling all the way to Europe (and I really, REALLY hate quitting). I taped it up and tried again, and seemed to be able to run on it (nervously, especially on these steep downhills and at night) so I continued. I was in and out of the aid stations very quickly and ended up amongst some faster racers than myself but was determined to make it work as payback for my earlier pacing mistake. As a result, I was working at an intensity that is too high for a race this long and higher than I've gone in any of my racing before, but I was having fun with it. It was a complete mouth-breather drool-fest, burying myself but hoping that I still had an endurance base from before my running training got shut down.  I kept increasing my time margin from the published cut-off times, suggesting that I would finish in under 39 hours. In the end, I decided that I wasn't absolutely concerned with my race time and position as long as I would finish well before the final cut-off, so I opted to walk down the final 8 km downhill in order to not abuse the ankle further. I ran the last stretch through town to the finish because no wants to watch someone slowly walk across the finish line. The crowd at the finish, the start, and various points along the race course throughout the day and night was crazy - the trail running equivalent of the Tour de France! 2,445 racers! No wonder they call UTMB "The summit of trail running".

The really, really long version. You've been warned... : I started ramping up my training in February with the goal of being ready with two months to spare, plus a 3-week taper before the race. The two months would allow for any training injuries or a sprained ankle, and would allow me time to recover and still do my race. I really didn’t want anything to prevent me from completing this race. Between gathering qualifying points at races in 2012, and going through lottery draws in 2012 and 2013, it is a long process to get into this race. If I was ready with two months to spare and was healthy, I would simply use those two months to keep training, really solidify the gains, and work on additional speed and strength. By late May I was approaching my maximum training volume (6-hour runs on Saturdays, followed by 4-hour runs on Sundays). VJ and I went down to San Francisco for a great weekend of play with our friends Ryan and Jen who live there, and got the chance to run and mountain bike on trails that weren’t buried under endless winter. I joined Ryan for a 50 km trail race that fit perfectly into my training schedule.

Chilling out after a trail run near San Fran

When we returned to Calgary, my first run after the race brought some pain in the upper right thigh that felt like a pulled muscle. This pain got worse over the next few weeks while I went to physiotherapy to understand what was going on. I continued with my training, especially when we ruled out a pulled muscle and thought it might be nerves from angry discs in the lower back. I carried on with my big training days, not wanting to let up on the training volume, pushing through the pain and telling myself “if it’s nerves, then it just feels like pain”. Big training continued, including big outings like the Canmore Triple Crown (up and down three mountains in a day).

When the leg wasn’t responding to treatment the way it should, I was sent for a bone scan, just to rule out the possibility of something big like a stress fracture of the femur. It’s rare to crack your femur from just running, but with the amounts of running I had been doing, I might be in that small statistic. I stopped any running and waited for the scan. That weekend, I went mountain biking instead, and had some pain that went up into the hip. This got worse to the point where I was having pain at rest and aches at night. I skipped the last ride with our group that weekend, and was pretty sure the bone scan would bring some bad news.

The bone scan showed something that had the possibility of being a stress fracture and it was recommended that I follow up with an MRI. In the meantime, I was put on crutches just in case. On the Canada Day long weekend, our friends Barb and Richard (both also training for UTMB) joined us at a condo in Canmore for 4 days of training in the mountains. I had grand plans of showing them the best trail running that Canmore and Banff have to offer with loads of ascending and descending to give their legs lots of what they couldn’t easily find in Ontario. Instead, I was on crutches when I greeted them, and Barb almost cried at the sight of it.

My physiotherapist outlined a 6-week return-to-walking-crutch-free schedule if it was a fracture. After 4 weeks, I would be allowed to try some light biking. This looked like it would also rule out being able to go on the 7-day Durango-to-Moab mountain bike trip we had booked via the San Juan huts system (about 4 weeks away and not “light biking”). I think I may have been more upset about this than missing UTMB – the bike trip sounded so cool. I continued to help arrange the logistics of the bike trip, insisting that VJ and our friend Becca still go ahead with it. Meanwhile, while Barb and Richard were visiting in Canmore and I spent the days hanging out in the condo, I refused to let anyone post any photos or comments about me being on crutches. Yes, clearly in denial, and not ready to give up hope until we were 100% certain (although it was feeling 90% certain that my bike trip and my race would both be cancelled. I expected to recover enough to at least be able to enjoy a touristy vacation in France in 7 weeks, and maybe be able to ride a road bike while I was there).

The next week I had my MRI (very grateful for the private MRI option in Alberta,…. about $1000 and a 1- or 2-day wait). I expected the MRI would clarify whether this was a crack in the bone, an avulsion, or a torn muscle, and we would then know how to proceed with treating it. After looking at both my left and right thighs and hips, the MRI report stated: “upper right thigh normal”. Absolutely nothing wrong with my leg, hip or groin, yet the pain was strong enough that it would be easy to convince me that the bone was cracked. My physiotherapist then diagnosed it as periostitis, like shin splints of the thigh. He let me come off the crutches, but I was told not to run. I was gradually able to reintroduce activities that were non-impact and wouldn't aggravate the periostitis, as we were trying to get this inflammation to calm down. I was allowed to try some very light road biking, and was able to use the stairmill at my gym because it didn’t bring pain. Workouts had to be kept short, definitely not the volume I was training at previously. After working my way through short road rides and stairmill workouts (started at 45 minutes which seemed insignificant compared with the 6-hour runs; I could feel that they weren't enough to maintain my fitness) I was given the okay to try mountain biking. In each case, my workouts would bring just a little discomfort but nothing too bad.

At what felt like the last minute, I was given the green light to try the mountain bike trip! My physiotherapist also said that if my leg did fine with the biking, he would let me try running when I returned. Yes, the door was cracked open for the possibility of starting UTMB! Don’t burn that ticket yet! But oh boy… that meant that three weeks before the race, at the time when I was planning to taper down from my large running volume, I would be starting to run again after more than 2 months off.

En route to Moab, we stopped in a grocery store. After checking out, I went back for something else in a rush. I softly jogged to the rear of the store, and back to the front. As I passed Becca (who also goes to the same physiotherapist), I looked at her and said “Don’t tell Dave” with a laugh, referring to my forbidden running. As soon as I stopped, the leg pain showed up again. Damn! Not good.

The week of mountain biking from Durango, Colorado to Moab, Utah was incredible. I highly recommend it. I had a little bit of discomfort in the leg for the first couple of days but the pain went away, as I diligently performed my physio exercises everyday. The trip was also incredibly therapeutic for my mind and soul, after all of the anxiety about my leg. At least I got to do something, I still got to enjoy this great trip, and being able to workout for hours each day is something my body had missed.

Feeling alive again in Moab, Utah
Back in Calgary, with about three weeks to go until UTMB, I got permission to try an easy 30-minute run on the treadmill. No significant pain, but it was obvious that I had lost a lot of running fitness. This slow run should not have been as much of a workout as it was. Still, you've never seen someone enjoy a treadmill so much - no one should get this much pleasure from a treadmill. I wasn't allowed to run two days in a row, so the next run would have to wait. As the runs progressed, I was allowed to increase my duration by 10 to 25 percent per week. Hmmmm.... How do I get back up to my 6-hour level in three weeks and still include a decent taper? Impossible. Oh well, with a two and a half month interruption in my running schedule, the perfect lead up to the race wasn't going to happen. I needed to simply prioritize being healthy for the race. I would have to accept the lost fitness and just suffer more on race day. The goal now was simply to get to the race, and hope that the leg would last through the distance and elevation to let me finish. I still wasn't allowed to try any downhill running, which we figure is what caused the injury.

Before heading to Chamonix, France for the race, we spent a week in the beautiful nearby town of Annecy with our relocated Canadian adventure racing friends Pete and Leanne and their three and a half year old daughter Mari, along with fellow UTMB racers Barb and Richard (the ones who joined us in Canmore previously). Days were filled with short trail runs, trips to mountain tops, watching the dozens of paragliders, and eating too much good cheese and yogurt. Annecy is also a great starting point for several excellent Tour de France rides, so my "taper" included a nice climb partway up the category 1 climb of Le Semnoz - I couldn't resist. It was so fun to ride a great climb like this, complete with the professional racer names painted on the road from when the Tour came through.

Climbing, and representing
Top that off with staying up until 1 am swapping adventure racing tales with Pete and Leanne, and I was clearly writing the book on how not to prepare for a big race. I knew it and decided that I wasn't concerned. I wasn't going to sacrifice all of this fun for a race preparation that was already so mixed up. I decided that despite how physically demanding this race course was, the challenge of finishing would be more of a mental battle, and I was feeling like I was in a really good place mentally thanks to the great Moab trip and the great time in Annecy.

The train ride into Chamonix is stunning. The cars are intentionally equipped with ceiling windows for taking in the scenery. Despite my patriotism and love of the Rockies at home, these mountains are noticeably more impressive.

Some of the scenery in Chamonix.  This view from our apartment shows only part of the Mont Blanc mountain range.  I would be running around the whole thing, going up and over 10 mountain passes along the way.
Arriving in Chamonix, I went to the hotel to check in while VJ rushed to see if she could get up the Aiguille du Midi gondola on this clear and sunny day. I went to the race check-in where I had to show my mandatory gear. The full-time gear list for this race is substantial, including two headlamps and spare batteries for each, warm pants or tights, rain pants, warm and waterproof gloves, rain jacket, long-sleeved shirt, warm hat, water, food, cup, cell phone, passport (for crossing into Italy, Switzerland and back into France during the race), and more. In total, my race pack weighed about 10 lbs (and that's with lightweight high-tech gear). Check in went smoothly and the organizers were excited and welcoming toward someone who had travelled so far. I received my race number bib which also sports my name (so that people can cheer you on by name, which they did) and my country's flag. The large majority of runners were from France, so the Canadian flag was quite unique and drew some attention (less than 20 Canadians out of 2,445 UTMB racers). I was feeling like a big shot international racer at UTMB, until VJ arrived and informed me that she rode the gondola with Kilan Jornet.... (For those who don't know, Kilian has essentially won every big race there is in the world, usually crushing the course record and has effectively retired from racing at the age of 25 because he doesn't have much interest in simply winning all of the races over and over again. Instead, he is now setting speed records climbing all of the biggest mountains in the world).

The start of the UTMB is huge. More than 2,400 racers, all in one mass start, through the streets of Chamonix which are lined with spectators about five rows deep. I went to the start about 40 minutes before, and couldn't get close enough to even see the start line. I had no idea how far back I was and how many racers were ahead of me.

Going for a little trail run with 2400 friends... (this picture doesn't capture all of us.  I'm to the left of the building on the left)
Is this the start? (the start line was ahead and to the left, after this side street merged in with the main stream from the right)
When the gun went off, we walked for two to three minutes before we passed under the start line arch. We continued to walk for a total of 10 minutes before the race pack opened up enough to run. As much as this was a little frustrating, and I was nervous about one of the time cut-offs early in the race, I reminded myself to relax and enjoy this incredible experience - thousands of people cheering on the street and from the balconies, reaching out for high-fives, TV cameras, at least one helicopter, and so many huge Swiss cow bells!

The rain didn't keep the crowds away
This video gives an idea of what the race course and the start are like:

The rain started about half an hour before the race start. Although it was forecasted to last for maybe an hour, it rained for six hours that night, sometimes quite hard.

I figured the rain would just play to my advantage, given my adventure racing background, so I wasn't too upset by it
When we left the road and started to ascend a ski hill, the huge crowd of racers was more than I was used to. I felt an urge to find my own space, and started picking my way through the crowd as if some open space awaited ahead.

Traffic!  Who wouldn't want to get ahead of this?
All of this was made a little more difficult by the soupy trail conditions - just add water and churn 2,445 times! This, combined with my nervousness about the time cut-off at kilometer 31, resulted in me pushing too hard and feeling tired by kilometer 20, and bagged by kilometer 30. Absolutely the wrong way to start an ultramarathon. I passed the time cut-off at 4 hours and 46 minutes, unnecessarily faster than the 6-hour criterion that I was so worried about. I was frustrated at this mistake but only had myself to blame, so I was determined to still "make it work". I put my head down and continued at this intensity for much of the rest of the race. What followed were many, many hours of mouth-breathing drool-fest. It would have been a respectable display of effort if it weren't for the fact that this intensity level is all wrong for a race this long, especially this early into the race. I spent most of the next day feeling like my head was in a suffer-bubble.  This, plus the fact that most racers spend two nights and one day on the race course due to the 5:30 PM start, meant that I didn't notice much of the incredible scenery around me.

This is NOT how you should be feeling this early in an ultramarathon.  Scenery?  What scenery? 
Okay I admit it - there was scenery and it was incredible

Not to sound like an exaggeration, but I don't think I've pushed this hard in any of my previous racing. Even though it was completely the wrong pace for this race, I was having fun with it - it felt good to dig deep like this. I was soon running in a group where I didn't belong. I was content to let them go ahead, but I made a point of being very fast through the aid stations and this would leap-frog me ahead as I would pass dozens of people while they stood around and refueled (I would simply refill my hydration bladder, load more food in my pockets to eat on the trail, and go).

Aid stations in Europe: sausage, cheese, bread
This approach brought me up as high as 564th position (quite good for me), with much of my race spent in the 600s. This was all better than I had expected, and this was despite my bad luck early in the race. At only kilometer 15, shortly into the first downhill, the leg pain that had put me on crutches a couple of months ago came back. I expected it would come back gradually through the race, but it came back fully and instantly. Now here's the weird part: it came back in the other leg. Fortunately it eased up somewhat, but it came and went for the rest of the race. Then around kilometer 30, my stomach went on me, a couple of times. Fortunately it wasn't too bad, I was able to bring it back by easing up the intensity briefly. The really bad news came at kilometer 45. As I was running down one of the many long steep downhills in the dark, I sprained my ankle, badly! I fell down and knew it was a bad one based on the pops and tearing I felt and heard. I got up and tried to run again, but my ankle was now floppy and just went right over again. Back to the ground I returned. This might be enough to end my race....

I really didn't want to stop. After all the training, long days running in the snow, the whole saga I went through this summer with the leg injury, I didn't want it to end this way. And most of all, I hate quitting. I mean really, REALLY hate quitting. A DNF ("Did Not Finish") will hang on me for a long time and feels absolutely awful. As much as the race feels awful at the time, I know that a DNF hurts me more. Like Lance Armstrong's quote (think what you will of him, but this quote rings true for me): pain is temporary, quitting lasts forever. There's only one way to fix it: don't stop. I pulled out some strapping tape and taped up my ankle. I gave it a cautious test and was able to run on it. I continued like this for the next 123 kilometers.

I can see the swelling in my ankle through my sock, and the race isn't over yet...
The long, steep uphills reduce everyone to a hike. The downhills were often too steep to be runnable by all but the top pros. Even then, I think the pros must descend some of these sections in a heel-striking braking fashion; many of these slopes were just too steep to stride down. Fortunately my taping job provided enough proprioception to my ankle that I was able to survive these downhills but I was always nervous, wishing for a brighter headlamp, and always focusing on finding the best footing for my right foot. I kept dreading the mis-step that would cause the ankle to go over again, maybe making it impossible to continue. It made for an extra-long race. From about kilometer 90 onward, I longed to be finished. It would have felt good to stop, but I didn't want all of the effort thus far to go unrewarded. Just keep it up for.... less than 70 kilometres to go...

By kilometer 139, I had built a 6 hour and 45 minute margin on the time cut-offs, on pace for a finishing time of around 39 hours or better. I decided that I didn't need to continue burying myself like this and could ease up a bit in order to take more of it in and enjoy it more. For the final 8-kilometer downhill to the finish, I decided that I owed it to my ankle to not run this final descent (I'd spent the last 115 kilometres worrying about what three off-road marathons might do to a sprained ankle). I walked the last downhill (frustratingly, much of this was quite runnable) while about 150 racers passed me. I kept telling myself that my time or position didn't matter, my goal had simply been to start and to finish, but it was a little tough to take.

A few kilometers from town, I heard a familiar voice cheering. VJ had hiked up the trail to meet me. Soon, we were joined by Pete and his daughter Mari. We walked into town where Leanne was waiting to shoot some video and I was joined by Richard who gave me a Canada flag to carry to the finish line. It soon became obvious that watching a runner walk to the finish line is pretty anti-climactic for the crowd, so I started running and sprinted for the finish. As I did this, Mari (who had been jogging alongside me) picked up the pace and was ready to outgun me for the line. Pete jumped in and scooped her up, probably kicking and screaming as she declared "I was going to win this race!". I'm indebted to Pete - I do believe Mari would have defeated me. Barb was waiting at the finish and snapped shots of me while it seemed to take me 10 minutes to think of what I was going to do next.

Now that UTMB is complete, I still don't know what I'm going to do next... :)

Mari throws down the challenge
The final stretch to the finish line

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