12 September 2011

2011 UTMB Race Report (Part 1)


Some of the entries here will be a little random and worse, incoherent. My apology in advance. I just resolved to "force" myself to write down my experience before the vividness and freshness of the memories disappear. It is strange why this is so. The content of this blog post will be mostly my personal experience about UTMB and will mention Simon in passing. I am sure he will document his own experience in a separate medium which in fact, he has already started doing so.

At any rate, I finally had the chance to go back to Donggwang hills here in Clark where I trained almost daily prior to UTMB. Last week, I headed out after almost one and a half weeks of rest. (Actually, I did a lot of walking in Madrid; so it wasn't a couch potato-type of rest :) I have been meaning to run early last week but a nasty cold hit me. My run at Donggwang was a little solemn since it was meant to express my gratitude to the place (hills) or Mother Nature in general. I remember emailing Simon about my wish to go back after UTMB to Mt. Arayat, Miyamit and Donggwang to offer my prayer of gratitude. So the weather was good enough to go back and as soon as I started, I grabbed a handful of soil, closed my eyes and uttered a simple prayer while letting the soil escaped my hands. Then I continued running until I reached the peak of one of the hills and did the same thing. Stopping from time to time to just absorb the place and appreciate what it had done to me - gave me enough strength ("mountains in legs") to finish UTMB.

Yesterday afternoon (Sunday) and in time for 9/11, I climbed Mt. Arayat alone and offered the same prayer of gratitude. That mountain is entirely different late in the afternoon. It becomes so alive. I mean I heard sounds of animals I have never heard before. Also, it really gets dark fast. Check out this video post UTMB where Killian said mountain is alive and it gives off energy. I am sure the Native Americans have been saying that for centuries but that is entirely another story. Here is the video clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m1xRBRNpOjU


Honestly, I did not train as hard as I did for GNW100. My  peak mileage was no more than 80K whereas during GNW I almost reached 160K per week. Big difference. On hindsight, what I lacked in mileage (quantity), I made up in quality. The addition of Donggwang as training ground was a huge help as I basically trained on hilly ground almost everyday. During GNW, I get to run hills only during weekend. For UTMB, hilly runs were done almost everyday and the best weekend training was doing a 11PM-9AM night run on Friday at Miyamit and the next day, climbing Mt. Arayat twice for 6,732 feet of elevation gain. Night run was with Simon and Arayat with Josaw, Jerwin, another runner and Simon also. 

UTMB - the race

Well, one can easily find out more about UTMB at this site - http://www.ultratrailmb.com/. Briefly, UTMB is one of the four (4) races being held during the last of week of August in Chamonix, France. Organized by The North Face, it is considered to be one of the biggest (if not the biggest) trail race in Europe with the 2011 edition joined by runners from 65 countries. It looks like Comrades to me in popularity and demography. It is 166KM race around Mont Blanc or Monte Bianco (the highest point in Europe) passing through France, Italy and Switzerland.  For this year's edition, it is 170 KM because of detour between Vallorcine and Chamonix (damaged by storm the night before the race) with 9,500 plus elevation gain. Converted in feet, we are looking at 63,000 feet of elevation gain and loss! Normally, the race starts at 18:30 but this time we headed out at 23:30 while it was raining and cold and just in time for the storm to pass.

elevation profile
It is summer in Chamonix during this time of the year. Unfortunately, the global climate change has affected the race as well as exemplified during the 2010 stoppage of the race. Even this year's edition was not an exemption. Cold and wet start and snowy during the race day and hot during the day 2. The weather has become unpredictable indeed.


Aside from the mandatory gear which is listed here, http://www.ultratrailmb.com/page/16/Réglement%20et%20inscriptions.html (kindly scroll down), we had to carry our water and fluid from one aid station to the next. In the map they gave us, some stations had only water but during the race, all of them have food and fluids. I was thrilled to find out that during the race, the organizers and volunteers would be serving dark chocolate aside from cheese, dried meat, fruits such as orange and banana, hot soup, hot tea and coffee, Coke, juice, etc. It was like a buffet. I mean dark chocolate. Wow! The French really have Michelin stars when it comes to food.

Okay, I am digressing. Going back to gear, one of the most important gear that kept me alive was the baselayer Icebreaker GT 200 I bought in Chamonix. It was expensive but worth every penny. That plus a tech shirt and TNF Ventura jacket lent to me by Simon (Merci monsieur!) kept my core warm. Thanks to Rick G. for the tip (who by the way is coming to Manila on September 28). The Zensah tights which Hector of Secondwind Store recommended proved to be very useful. Thanks Hector for the discount, man. For shoes, I went for another pair of Inov8 - Roclite 295 donned with a pair of Injinji plus Icebreaker merino wool socks. The results are no blisters and warm toes except when the temperature went below zero. For pack, I went for my old Deuter lite 2.0 backpack. I trained using H2O bladder but decided 2 weeks before the race to use a pair of 750ml Raidlight bottles which I bought at a discount at Chamonix. The primary reason for this is the convenience of refilling based on the testimony of previous UTMB runners and above all, to balance the weight of my pack both front and back. It worked which even convinced Simon to try the same :) Prior to travelling, I asked my cobbler (Yes, a shoe repairman. Trust the ingenuity of Pinoys) to modify my back pack. I asked him to remove the water holders of my Deuter waistpack and stitch them in front of my backpack's shoulder straps. He said save the waistpack and he would make a pair of water holders instead. The result was superb. Here is a photo. It was sturdy and cheap. I bought  a pair of detachable Salomon waist packs and backpack was almost perfect.

in front of the distribution center

For headlamp, I used my Fenix HP10. I think its performance outweighs the weight of 4xAA batterries as I could see in front me like it was daytime. Here is the link: http://www.fenixlight.com/viewnproduct.asp?id=49. For watch, I left my Garmin 405 which is useless beyond marathon distance and went for my tried and tested Timex which I used during GNW100. The only downside was having the battery changed at Chamonix which cost me 10 Euros whereas here the cost would be less than 3 Euros :)

CHAMONIX - days before the race

Simon, on our way to race pack distribution

I arrived in Chamonix on 21 August 2011, Sunday. Simon would not join me until dawn of Tuesday. What I did was to run several times on a nearby mountain opposite Mont Blanc. Nothing long and arduous but certainly hilly and took note of the trail condition. I think it is very important to arrive early for a race like this. One reason is to adjust not only weather-wise but to recover from jet lag especially for a runner who have travelled several thousand miles and to another time zone. In my case it took me almost 17 hours sitting on my arse in a plane with 2-3 hours of pit stop at Doha. Time difference is 6 hours, Chamonix being late to Manila. I took me 3 days to recover from jet lag. One of the best ways to recover is to tire oneself by running so that you sleep early and thus adjust accordingly. I was told that one of the reasons why runners DNFed is because of jet lag. I don't know if we can take this hook, line and sinker.

There was no mistaking about it. The atmosphere in Chamonix was charged with energy and anticipation. It was subtle but you know it was there. I agree with Doc Peter when he said this is a haven for mountain climbers/runners, skiers, and all other outdoor athletes. The town was bustling with people from around the world. Athletes from Europe, Asia, America with 2 low-key Filipinos in their midst :). I just love the Alpine town not only for its people and culture but also it houses some of the best yet unknown sports brands for clothing, shoes, etc. It is all there.

During my stay there, I have realized why this kind of race will always breed and inspire world-class athletes. Young kids are well exposed to this kind of sports. It is pretty common to see young kids in athletic get up walking with their athletic parents and the best of all was seeing the whole family up and about in the wee hours of the morning of the race cheering all runners passing by their front house. Kids lined up along the finish line waving, giving high-fives to runners on their way to Finish line. These and more are what makes UTMB very special. I have heard the same thing for Comrades and other races. Truly inspirational! I hope one day, this will happen in our own country. Perhaps, we are on our way there.


wrist timing chip.

All these in one day. Wednesday, 24 August, Simon and I went to the site for the race kit distribution and gear check which was more or less 1 kilometer from our unit. As usual, walking is the only mode transportation. We were done in like in less than 15 minutes. It was orderly. We received our race bib with timing chip and another timing chip on our wrist, drop bag, official 2011 TNF UTMB short which is cool-looking. This day also officially opened to the public the bazaar - Salon de l’Ultra-Trail sporting different athletic brands some of which I had never seen before.

race bib has timing chip too which they remove
as soon as a runner crosses the finish line 

drop bag center. very organized

Since the day Simon arrived, all we discussed was everything about the race. From gear, to fuel, fluids and as mundane as needles and threads and waist garter to pin our race bib to. Did I mention we ran also along the river? It was cool.

RACE DAY  Friday

For the past few days, Simon and I had been closely monitoring the weather both from UTMB organizers and our iPhones. It was not looking good. The weather was sunny from morning until mid-afternoon and after that, it just suddenly changed into rain and strong wind. It was weird but then we realized this is probably how it has been in this kind of environment and altitude.

Below is the SMS we received from UTMB in the morning of Race Day.

“UTMB : important storm + cold weather + rain or snow. UTMB start at 11:30pm. The route doesn’t change, except Vallorcine-Chamonix by the bottom of the valley”

Oh my. 11:30PM start. Simon and I had really accepted the fact we would be both running through two nights in a row. Something neither of us had ever done before. On a positive note, we both focused on what necessary gear and items we should put in our drop bag. Obviously, my primary concern was hypothermia. I had a close experience of this during Oxfam HK in 2009 where the temperature up on the mountains reached O to 3’C. I was wearing 4 layers with poncho and it wasn’t enough to keep me from shaking. That is the reason why I purposely allotted a budget for the Icebreaker GT 200 baselayer as above adverted to. We modified our mini maps containing the distance between aid stations and which aid stations had water, time barriers or cut-off times and another map containing the elevation gain and loss profile. That was all I needed. What I mentally took note of are (1) cut-off times at the specified aid stations and (2) water. The reasons are simple. Time barriers are there to remind a runner that he is in a race and that there is no point carrying excess water or unnecessary weight between aid stations. I mean it will be a total waste of energy to carry 1.5 liters of H20 when the distance to the next aid station is merely 5K. The reason I chose 2x750ml of Raidlight bottles was because there were some aids station as far as 15K and when one is on a mountain, 15K is quite far because of terrain and altitude.

Simon and I tried to sleep hours before the race start but the excitement and nervousness were not helping us. Pretty normal I guess. So when we were ready to drop our bags in the afternoon, we coincided the time with the Pasta Party between 2-5PM.  At the Pasta Party, it was like in a school canteen, you fall in line, grab a tray and choose your food (it was pasta with tomato sauce and parmesan, yogurt and bread. Coffee and hot tea too. We chanced upon two (2) elite US ultrarunners namely Geoff Roes, winner of Western States100 in 2010 and the young Dakota Jones, number 2 at Hardrock 2011 (both, unfortunately, DNFed). Here is the picture:       

We dropped by again at the bazaar – Salon de l’Ultra-Trail and supermarket to buy our food for today and Sunday – the day we would finish. I was in charged of menu and cooking while Simon took care of dishwashing. Perfect combination. Of course, I washed dishes too. We resolved to eat light meals days before the race but for some strange reason, I was craving for red meat on Friday. To meet halfway, we decided to cook beef shank stew with chicken legs in red wine with parsley, tomatoes, potatoes and carrots. It would be our recovery meal after the race which we reckoned would also be our decent meal after the race. Reheating and eating this stew was heavenly after all those race food and with extra chili flakes gave it extra heat before taking a bath. Simon loved it as well. We both had a bowl full of it with baguette and Mt. Blanc beers :) 

yellow is good

We just stayed inside the unit and watched the weather outside turned from good to downright nasty. Around 5PM, it rained incessantly with strong winds. Cold temperature at sub 10’C and we were just below Mt. Blanc. We shuddered at the thought of the condition high above the mountains. It would perhaps be dangerous to run under those conditions. At least, the weather forecast was accurate and UTMB perfectly timed the start so that the storm had already passed.


This was it! Hours before the start, we started to prepare and so were the other 2,300 plus UTMB runners. The moment we had been waiting for several months now was upon us. There was no turning back now. As usual, I checked and re-checked my list of things to do and items. All okay. It was raining outside and we donned our jacket. As soon as we stepped outside our unit, the temperature was very cold. In my excitement, I even left my Mountain Gear hat (mandatory gear) and had to rushed back to our unit. It was 5 minutes past 11PM and we still had to walk to the Start line. 

The energy and excitement at Start line was something I had never felt and experienced before. It was absolutely super charged! People were all over the place in front of the iconic St. Michel church. (Perhaps, Simon has picture of this)

the day before the race or should I say calm before the storm

Friends, family members, strangers, young and adult were all lined up along the railings even as it was raining and cold. Cheering and hugging their loved ones with the powerful song from the film “1492” entitled CONQUEST OF PARADISE by Vangelis in the background. Listening to this UTMB theme song blaring through the speakers while watching the several thousand runners and people around me were enough to give me goose bumps. The atmosphere was electric. It was both perfect and powerful song! I love it. Try listening to it for yourself here -  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WYeDsa4Tw0c . I just closed my eyes and prayed for strength and enough courage for both of us to tackle the long and hard race ahead. Simon and I both agreed to stick to one another until the next aid station which was 8 kilometers ahead in the dead of the night. We positioned ourselves at the back which was a mistake because it took us several minutes to cross the line.


I could not help but kept on fiddling with my upper gear and making adjustments now and then especially on the annoying waterproof gloves. I was not used to wearing the pair. No choice, otherwise frostbite. After several kilometers, I was not feeling comfortable. Two layers of merino wool with TNF jacket on were making me sweat inside. I remembered Rick G’s advise on the convenience of layers. You can easily take them off and that was I did. I removed one shirt of merino wool (thanks Simon for this shirt) which I never found any use during the rest of race. On hindsight, I should have left this at Cormayeur or the drop bag center, 77km into the race. But the second night of running made me decide otherwise. We never knew what was in store for us. On the other hand, Simon was having problem with his “new” pair of trekking poles. One pole locked up. It was safe to assume that he was not happy about it. I offered his pair of trekking poles which I was using but he said it was ok. I think a runner will and must know how to adapt as the race unfolds a race as long and hard as UTMB. It is always a matter of survival.

So off we went again. We saw families we were still up and about and cheering us all runners when we passed by their houses. Some guys who were obviously drunk but meant no harm came out also to cheer us on “Bravo!” and Allez, allez! It was funny to watch them cheered and danced at the same time.

First major steep climb was Delavret (1,776m) and then we ran the steep downhill to St. Gervais. Because of the storm and the thousand of runners that had passed, this route was wet, muddy and slippery. We had to navigate ourselves through long queue of runners especially on single track. We were sufficiently warned of this downhill to Saint Gervais and thus, we took it slowly. Others, on the other hand, were running and unmindful of the premature effect of this on the quads. One runner slipped and fell on his hip with such sound. Ouch! He stood up as quickly as he fell. This is the kind of terrain where trekking poles really shine. It helps a lot on slippery downhill.

Our countless pit stops to fix our gear, long queues, visibility, cold weather, and 1 poop incident for me were eating our time unnecessarily. There was never a time I lost track of the time barriers and at which stations:

modified list of aid stations with time barriers

First station with cut-off time is Les Contamines – 31 km at an altitude of 1170m into the race more or less 6 hours. Quick mental note made me realized that we could not make it on time with the pace we were on. 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.  







1 comment:

  1. can't wait to hear the rest of it... amazing feat and awe-inspiring conquest. QED