Thursday, September 4, 2008

THE FIRST HALF OF THE ULTRA TOUR DU MONT BLANC - JUST PLAIN HARD! (all images can be enlarged by clicking on them)

I ended up getting to the race expo pretty early. As I waited in line, I was amazed at the number of runners. I think the largest ultra I have done before this was American River 50. This was huge. At check in, after showing ID, I had to have my pack inspected to confirm that I had all mandatory equipment (jacket, tights/pants, hat, whistle, rain parka/blanket, two flash lights plus spare batteries, food and water supplies). Then I received my race shirt, number and chip.

The expo was very large, but made up mostly of other race organizers trying to entice runners into their events.

I popped outside and the official race gear tent was there. While having a wide selection, the prices were quite high (even before taking into account the dollar-Euro exchange). I opted to pass on any additional merchandise and headed back to start on my drop bags.

Along the way, I came across the start/finish area. It was in the center of town right next to a beautiful old church. The inside of the church was likewise old and beautiful.

As I wondered along the cobblestone streets of Chamonix, Mont Blanc loomed ahead. It was a clear day and appeared to be set for a nice race. Everywhere were runners wondering along the town streets.

I bought some water and great local bread and headed back. Once at the room I busied myself setting up my drop bags. There are only two drop bags – one at the 50 mile point in the city of Courmayeur and the other at around the 75 mile mark in Champex-Lac. In addition to my back pack, I had my waist belt that held one water bottle and my S! Caps.

Because there were just the two drop bags and I was not familiar with the course, I was kind of guessing as to what I would need at each spot. But I figured I would be hitting the 50 mile point in the day light and the 75 mile point around night time and stuffed them accordingly.

The rest of the day was filled with easy sight-seeing and relaxing. We headed over to the gym at 4:00 to drop off the drop bags and then I grabbed a quick pasta dinner at the athlete carbo feed before getting back to the hotel.

Finally it was time to start getting into my race clothes. I was pretty nervous and still quite a bit tired. But soon we headed off to the start line. It was amazing – it was as if the town quadrupled in size during the prior few hours. The streets were packed with spectators and runners. There was music and announcements blaring from loud speakers. Helicopters buzzed around the sky and banners were flying everywhere.

The start line itself was even more amazing. 2300 runners packed into the small Chaminox street in front of the church. The race was playing music that reminded me of Vaughner – it was exciting and really was working the crowd into a frenzy. The announcers kept shouting to the runners and crowds who roared back. At one point he said something in French and everyone that owned trekking/hiking poles thrust them into the air at once. I looked around – it appeared as if I was the only guy there without such poles.

Then suddenly the countdown started and we were off.

Initially it was little more than a shuffle due to the number of runners crammed into the space. Soon however it opened up and we started running through the streets. Crowds along side cheered everyone on. I was keeping a moderate pace, not quite sure how I would do just 2 weeks after Leadville 100. I stayed a steady pace and soon the roads changed to a trail along a river. The path modulated up and down and soon crossed through a camping grounds. After a short bit, we started climbing. The trail went up through a small village where crowds were clapping and cheering. Since each runners’ bid number has a flag of their nationality, quite often the crowd would cheer or say something reflective of the country. The American flag on my number seemed to surprise many spectators as the vast majority of numbers had French flags with some German, Italian, Spanish and Swiss tossed in. Every now and then I’d see an Austrian flag, Dutch flag or UK flag too.

The first climb went up La Charme which was a fairly short 800 meter climb up the hill. As we were climbing, to our left was the Mont Blanc mastiff and surrounding areas. The glacier coming down the hill was huge and there were small streams of ice melt coming off the peaks. The skies were clear but it was humid – I was sweating a lot so I kept a regular routine of popping my S!Caps.

After climbing for a bit we approached our first check point where our numbers were read. Since it was getting dark I stopped and put on my tights, Moeben arm warmers and headlamp. I also grabbed my flashlight.

Soon the climb ended and we started descending down the hill. I like downhills and have always considered that my stronger part of ultras. But my legs were still feeling a bit sore from Leadville and these downhills were quite a challenge. After some long downhills, we entered the half marathon point in Saint-Gervais.

This was a large aid station. I was amazed – not only was there the standard fruit, energy bars, drinks but tons of cheeses and cold cuts. I opted to pass on the cheese and continued on the run. The climb out of Saint-Gervais continued but my legs felt empty. So I slowed my pace and tried to climb the hill slowly, switching to a power hike. After a long time and entered Les Contamines at the 31km mark. I sat down – just not feeling too well.

After resting a bit I started on again – moving along the Notre Dame Gorge. After awhile I started to feel a little better. This climb went up and up and up and up. It made Hope Pass at Leadville seem short. But along the climb, my legs were feeling much better and I was jogging and power hiking on up.

Behind me, I could see an endless trail of lights as runners were coming up from the valley. Before the peak of Croix du Brnhomme, there was another aid station. I grabbed more cheese, some french bread, a couple pieces of dark chocolate and refilled my water bottles. Then it was off again to continue climbing into the night sky.

After an eternity of climbing, we finalized reached the top. Then it was a flat while and then dropped down. The problem here was it was very wet from snow melt and the granite and slate were slippery. I heard many runners slip and twice I went down, once knocking my flashlight out of my hand where it tumbled for at least 10 feet before another runner grabbed it. This made the descent slow, although at times it was too steep to run anyway.

The trail finally left the rocks and entered grasslands as we approached the village of Les Chapieux. There I entered the aid station and had my now standard bread, cheese, chocolate and water meal.

After leaving the aid station, I started to become quite tired. The path from this stop was a paved road that slowly climbed out of the valley towards Col de la Seigne. After climbing and climbing, we dropped down a bit on a dirt path that instantly starting climbing again. It was getting into the early morning hours but was still dark. I kept climbing, not believing how long the ascents and descents seemed to go on in this race. Finally, at one point after barely keeping my eyes open, I stopped and sat on a boulder and nodded off for about 5 minutes. Then it was climbing again.

The climb started to get cold. We were approaching 2500 meters and there were snow packs around. Plus the wind was picking up and my clothes were still damp from the sweat of the earlier climb. Thank God for my tights, Moeben arm sleeves, and my ZombieRunner Head Sweats cap. The sun was just starting to light the horizon. Finally, I got to the top of the Col. There was a check-in station. The volunteers had a fire going and I went to warm myself by it. I started chatting with the volunteers who told me there was a mountain "house" about 10 minutes down where I could pop inside to warm up.

I started down the hill and soon passed the building. The valley was wide open below me. I was going to leave without stopping but a runner came out and mentioned that it was warm. So I popped in to warm up. There was a table and a bench. One other runner was just starting to stretch out on the table for a nap. I decided that I needed one too - I set my watch timer for 30 minutes and instantly dozed off. When the alarm went off, I snoozed for 15 more minutes and then got up.

I felt great! My legs were totally re energized. I was not sleepy at all. I exited the building and started down the trail. I had lost 45 minutes, but I had saved my race. I was feeling so good I was passing people left and right. Soon the sun broke out and I had to peel off all my cold weather clothes and stuff them into my bag.

The bottom of the descent entered a small aid station at the 65km point. I grabbed my food and headed out, running along a rare flat section. The mountains rose on each side of me as I jogged past a mountain stream that became a river.

Soon the path turned sharply left and straight up. As I entered I heard another American voice - the first I had heard in the race. His name was Bogie. We chatted a bit - this was his first 100 miler ever. He mentioned that his knee wasn't feeling good and soon we became separated. Then a few minutes later I saw my friend Nattu. We too chatted for awhile, but he also wasn't feeling great and we got separated going up the climb. I then came upon yet another American and we climbed together for awhile comparing Leadville notes (he had paced a runner there 2 weeks earlier). At the top of this climb, called Arete du Mont Favre, I let the volunteers record my numbers and then took off flying down the hills.

My legs were still feeling good and I took advantage of this. I was passing through a valley with the Glaciers in full view to my left. The rock formations were awesome and the mountains beautiful.

Soon, the trail started to drop and we entered a ski area called Col Checrouit at 73 km. It was kind of surreal grabbing my cheese and bread in the shadow of the glaciers and Mont Blanc while two volunteers dressed as belly dancers performed next to the runners.

The next 5km were unbelievable. It was almost straight down. The city of Courmayeur (our first drop bag site) came into site. But it looked like a parachute jump to get down to it. The trail became a wide gravel road. The gravel was so loose and the decline so steep, I felt that I was going to go down any minute. The "road" turned out to be a ski run heading down towards the village. I love descents - but this was a freakin free fall.

Finally, after what seemed to be forever, the paths stopped and I entered the outskirts of Courmayeur. I didn't realize it at the time, but this was now my first visit to my paternal ancestors' homeland - I had entered Italy. I passed by a small fountain and ran down cobbled stone streets until I came to the sports gymnasium. This was the 78 km point, nearly 1/3 the race was over.

I grabbed my drop bag and entered the gym. I laid down and rested for about 20 minutes and then changed out supplies in my bag, taking more day time items, leaving some wet items and replinishing my S!Caps, Gu and other fuels. Then I downed a plate of pasta that was cooked right in front of me.

I gathered my stuff, handed my bag back to a volunteer and headed out the door onto the streets of Italy.

Coming up in the next post: the final 57 kilometers of the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc 2008.


Eudemus said...

Very, very cool, Alan. The pictures are totally amazing. I can't wait to see and read the rest. Congrats on an awesome finish.


Alan said...

Thanks Steve - part II was just posted.