(last part of 2 parts)
x x x
First station with cut-off time is Les Contamines – 31km at an altitude of 1170m into the race of more or less 6 hours. Quick mental note made me realized that we could not make it on time with our current pace. We had to run or all would be lost for us. I conveyed this to Simon with whom I was still with. He agreed on the urgency of the situation. Also, I sensed that something was wrong with my right knee, the least part of my body I expected I would have trouble with. Sharp and dull pain inside. With a mere 30km into the race, this feeling was disheartening. So I tried to slow down a bit to figure out what was wrong. Based on my quick assessment, there was none since my knees never gave me any problem during training nor have I excessively abused it during the early portion of the race especially on downhills. To my mind, if this persisted my race would be over even before I'd see the sun in the next few hours. I told this to Simon, who asked if I were okay. I said it was annoying. So we kept moving. This time we were running and passing a lot of runners regardless of the terrain. If it was too steep, we power walked and bombed the downhills. I was very surprised that many runners seemed to be so relax. Meaning, they seemed to be unmindful of the looming cut-off at Les Contamines. At the rate they were moving, these runners would never make it on time because we got to the station barely 7 minutes before the time barrier! In fact, they were about to pack up when we left.
DAWN & MORNING
That was close and so we kept on running as much as we could. My strategy for this race was to slowly accumulate excess time per station. Meaning, to reach each station with more than enough time before the cut-off so that I would always have a margin of at least 1 hour. This excess time will be used to deal with unexpected turn of events, which more often than not happens in a long race like this. Even as low as 30 minutes per station and given how many stations there were, the total accumulated hours over time will be enough. For this race, I had excess time of 2 hours before the cut-off of 46 hours.
aid station at Les Chapieux ( I think :) see the background?
We were running through La Balme all the way up to one of the highest points of the course - Croix du Bonhomme at 2443m. The sun was peaking through Mont Blanc and the prospect of running under the sun was definitely a welcome change. Even with minimal visibility, we could already see the feature of the huge, expansive and MAGNIFICENT view of Mont Blanc! Absolutely breathtaking! None that I had ever seen before. Sometimes, I just stopped on my tracks and absorbed the view. Magnificent! I wish I had taken more pictures but I was afraid of draining the battery of my iPhone, which is notorious for its battery life. Mobile phone is a mandatory gear throughout the race and proved to be invaluable. In fact, we received this message early morning of Saturday while running:
"UTMB New time barriers / Nouvelles barrières horaires : Trient 14:15 - Vallorcine
17:00 - Argentière 18:45 - Chamonix 21:00"
It was near the peak of Bonhomme when I had my first experience of snow. Oui, my first. The terrain with colors of green and brown gradually metamorphosed into snow white in color. Lovely. I could not help but remove my gloves to feel it even for a few seconds only. Too darn cold. My fingers just froze after a minute or so. The wind was strong also which added "freezing factor" to it.
While my right knee had stopped annoying me, Simon and I also had this "cramp" feeling on our front quads and could only power walk that much. We tried to analyze the cause and our unanimous decision/solution was to top up on our electrolytes (even if we hardly perspired) and pace ourselves properly. I think the cold temperature had something to do with it as well. Fortunately, this condition never became worse as soon as daytime came around.
After climbing Croix du Bonhomme (45km), we still had to manage two peaks - Col de la Seigne (2516m) and Arele du Mont-Favre (2435m) before we could reach the next major aid station with our drop bags at Courmayeur (77km). Courmayeur is a small Alpine town also. Descending to this town from Arele du Mont-Favre was quad numbing. Too darn steep with switchbacks!
COURMAYEUR (Italian side)
As usual, the people of Courmayeur were very warm and accommodating (typically Italian). From the mountains, we could hear voices down the valley. Families and friends were cheering all the runners passing by the picnic ground. They were obviously enjoying the sun. What a sight to see after all those miles!
In all our brief passages through towns (whether in France, Italy and/or Switzerland), families would come out to freely offer from cold water to soda. Sometimes even food. It was the kids who normally served. It is thus easy to figure out that UTMB is part of their culture now because there is wide acceptance in the community and that it is "normal". In a way, they really take pride in the event. This is a good breeding ground for future competitive runners.
With our excess time of almost 2 hours, Simon (who came in after a few minutes) and I decided to take a nap of 12 minutes - my first ever nap in ultra races. Of course, it was superficial but it was enough to recharge us. The reason for this was the second night of running in a few hours - my first also. I changed my socks too. Later on, we found out that this was the part where most of the runners discontinued their race.
SECOND NIGHT (most difficult)
From Courmayeur, Simon signalled me to go ahead as his hip was giving him some problem. From Refuge Bertone to Champex-Lac during the second night was a measly 42k where I had to navigate and conquer the highest peak - Grand Col Ferret at an altitude of 2537m. This was one of the most difficult part of the race on account of sleep deprivation, etc.
At around 2AM, my eyelids were literally closing! I had so much difficulty that I kept on squinting. Despite another 12-minute nap (while sitting, head against a table) in another aid station, it was not much of help. Caffeine in Coca-cola, coffee and tea were useless too.
I vividly remember there were several of us navigating a long winding cliff (was it in Refuge Bonatti or La Fouly?). Cold wind, fatigue, plus sleep deprivation combined together was a lethal combination. I saw some runners who just literally "dropped" on the side of the trails and slept in fetal position unmindful of the weather and how fast the core gets cold. Some even fell asleep on their feet until they "buckle down" to hit a rock or stone which forced their eyes to open again at least momentarily. We were like zombies in varying degrees. All of us were quite and I think even the effort of talking would be such a waste of energy.
In my case, I had to use one pole to protect myself from going off the cliff. That particular mountain we were on was like haunted. It felt like it was pulling me down! I prayed and prayed all over again. Thinking of my family and kids, who are very young and also my fellow Pinoy runners back home to whom I dedicated this run kept my eyes half-opened. I just prayed that the sun would rise soon and deliver us through this difficult part of the race.
SUNSHINE & THE LAST 21k
Voila, the sun was about to shine again! I kept looking at it over the horizon. Slowly, it unfolded itself on the vast and beautiful landscape and in doing so, it invigorated everything under its rays most especially the runners. Again, the scenery here was unbelievably beautiful!
For second day, I just concentrated on surviving until I reached the finish line but there was no laxity on my part. I always reminded myself to run smart, be safe and always mindful of the cut-off. This was not the time to take it easy since anything could turn into disaster. What was reassuring was that I had like 3 hours of margin to deal with the unexpected stuff. Psychologically, it helped a lot.
Who would not love that scenery?! Simply beautiful & rugged.
Japanese runners in front of me.
The way to the Finish line was not easy (I assume it would never be easy after covering so much distance so far). I hardly noticed how cramped my feet were after those miles in and due to cold temperature during the early party of the race. The sub-zero temperature numbed my feet that I could hardly feel my toes. I even complained to Simon about this. The prospect of frostbite really scared me. In other words, my feet were battered that I found it hard to run during the last 21K, more or less from Vallrocine (149K), Argentière all the way to Chamonix. Not from blisters (zero this time) but from sheer stress of being up for more than 40 hours.
Town below near Vallrocine
When I reached Argentière or the last 6K before the Finish line, I took out my phone and texted Simon, who was approaching Vallrocine. I was happy to learn that he overcame his hip problem just like the rest of the runners had their own personal difficulty to deal with. He would finish I thought to myself.
The last kilometer or so to the Finish line was and would always be the most exciting part. I took out my Philippine flag sticker and did not know where to place it. On my shirt or jacket? The obvious choice was on my hat (forehead side) and then I ran again. People were just hanging out and cheering all the runners. The prospect of coming under 44 hours was tempting that I had to run to the Finish line. Unfortunately, we had to pass through the town center amidst cheers and high-fives that I went 57 seconds beyond the 44 hours. Then again, it does not matter that much. Audience was very warm and excited. Kids along the route were simply having a blast! They reminded me of my kids.
As soon as I crossed the Finish line, I raised my trekking poles, closed my eyes and uttered a short prayer that I was safe and in one piece. The joke was that I was called a Japanese or Korean when about to cross only to see a flag they had rarely seen before :)
The reward was not a medal but a COOL blue/green TNF Polartec vest with UTMB logo and the inscription "UTMB Finisher". Even Kilian and other podium finishers received the same reward. No cash prize. The only tragedy was losing Simon's trekking poles amidst the excitement and noise. Sorry man. I'll compensate for it less its sentimental value (priceless).
That night was a celebration for us over Mont Blanc beers, French chocolate, cheese, nuts and of course, the stew!
Thanks to my family, relatives, friends for their support and prayers! Sponsors like Engr. Arcilla of ANGLO, Jonathan Co, HRPC, DJ Kim, Dave of EliteClean, Poongsan, etc. Merci beaucoup!
Did I say UTMB should be in your bucket list? It should be. I had fun running this race!
Jon (my longest race report so far)
Jon (my longest race report so far)