Race report Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc – 170.3KM including 10,000M vertical ascent. August 28 – Aug 30 2015::

Race preparations basically started two years ago when I ran my first ultra marathon (Verbier St Bernard Trail – Traversee) and gained my 1st few UTMB points. A total of 8 UTMB points gathered in the 18 preceding months to the UTMB are needed to enter the draw for a place at the start. As there were 15,000 subscriptions, and only 2,500 bibs to be distributed, I had a 17% chance of starting, so I was lucky.

At the start of 2015, I had a goal of getting to a bodyweight of 93KG and obviously getting a lot of training KM’s under the belt. I started the race weighing 95KG and did not train the amount of KM’s that I had in mind. So my preparation wasn’t ideal. Reason why I ran less KM’s than planned was a knee injury which played up 6 weeks before the UTMB. Until that moment I trained around 50KM/week, combined with cycling and swimming. I stopped running for 3 weeks but continued cycling and swimming. After my chiropractor gave me the green light to increase my training intensity, I already missed out on 2-3 60KM+ training runs. In the last three weeks before my race, I did a few 20-30KM runs incl. 1,800 – 2,500M vertical and only one 60KM run with 4,500M vertical. The last week before the race, I didn’t run at all and focused on my stretching and started my carb intake. I did not follow a specific diet, apart from leaving the alcohol aside and eating lots of pasta. I guess it was a bit naïve to not follow a certain diet – I probably could have dropped my body weight under 93 KG.

Mental preparation happened at every training run. Still, it was always hard to imagine that I would be out there for two nights in a row and running around three times the distance of my longest training run. Support from friends and family and the charity I supported really helped getting mentally prepped.

I set my mind on finishing the race within 40 hours, which seemed a very realistic goal. From experience i know these goals needs adjusting during these kind of races based on the circumstances.

Race day::

I ate my last meal (rice with veal) about 2 hours before the race which went down well. This supported a good start, as nothing can be more annoying than stomach issues when running. Start in Chamonix (1,036M) was pretty emotional, tears in either eye. First 8 KM went slightly downward, which provided for an easy start of the race. First climb to Le Delevret (1,736M) went well. Not too steep, but very crowded with runners, so not possible to run my own pace. I decided to not use my poles for as long as possible and keep them attached to my race vest. Descending from Le Delevret to St Gervais (815M) went well. I passed quite a few people uphill, and was overtaken by a few going downhill. Generally, I’m a better climber than downhill runner. I reached the 1st stop at 21KM in 3 hours and was happy with my 7KM/h average.

Next up, climb to Les Contamines (1,160M), which wasn’t too much of a challenge with approx 10 KM’s going up and bits going down. From Les Contamines, the real climbing started to La Balme (1,699M). I decided to start using my poles at 38KM, which brought me some relief.

From La Balme we climbed to Refuge Croix Bonhomme (2,441M) – a long climb. This climb was a magical experience. Early in the race, feeling pretty strong and all the headlamps ahead and behind me forming a snake of light through the pitch black night. I felt very happy.

From Croix de Bonhomme, we descended to Les Chapieux (1,553M). A long, initially quite technical, but further down, relatively easy descent to the next stop at 49KM. I took 20 mins to stock up. Meaning, filling up water bottles with water / sports drink, eating 2 bowls of salty bouillon, two hands of raisins, 3-4 pieces of cheese, 1/2 banana and one or two chocolade chip cookies for on the go. Quick call home that all is OK and feeling fine. These moments are invaluable and give me mental energy.

From there it went all the way up to Col de la Seigne (2,507M). A long climb which started on tarmac followed by 2 km’s of fire road, i.e. easy start of the climb. This went into a smaller, by times, pretty steep trail. It’s here where I started to feel mentally tired. One of my poles broke on one of the telescopic connecting points which I previously encountered during a training run. I.e. I knew how to fix this. Whilst fixing this, I decided to take a super quick nap. Sat down for about 3 minutes with my head between my knees. Super short, but effective. On the remainder of the climb to the top, i had to stop a few more times to put my jacket on, grab energy bars, fix my pole again. I.e. i did not have a good rhythm going up and therefore unnecessary lost some time. I reached the top when the sun came up. A good crew was cheering at the top around a bonfire which gave a good mental boost.

From the top of Col de la Seigne, it went down into Italy, followed by a short technical climb and long technical descent to Lac Combal (1,964M). The climb and descent went over a huge rock avalanche meaning that you have to be super concentrated where to put your poles and feet. Stocking up at Lac Combal to start another beautiful day. The sun and surroundings filled up my energy levels.

From Lac Combal, it went flat for 1 KM, to the start of the climb to Arrete Du Mont-Favre (2,409M). It was here that the muscles on both my tibia (shins) started to properly hurt. Mainly when running on the flat or going downhill. No problem going uphill. This meant that as of KM 66, my speed started to drop significantly, as I couldn’t manage my speed on the flat and going down. Just too painful. The pain was caused what later appeared to be inflamed shin muscles.

From the top it went all the way down into Courmayeur (1,191M), where I knew Ellen and Bruno and Suzy were awaiting me. First part of the descent went OK, slower than anticipated, second part of the descent was very steep and pretty technical, i.e. a suffer fest for the shins. My spirits were pretty low when I arrived at Courmayeur, which was right before halfway the race. Meeting Ellen and the kids, getting medical support for my shins (massaging and strapping) and stocking up got my head back to where it needed to be.

Because I lost quite some time over the last 15 KM’s before Courmayeur and spend about an hour at the Courmayeur stop, I was first confronted with getting close to a cut of time. This sharpened me and made me keep going when it got tough. And tough it got. Climbing out of Courmayeur to Refuge Bertone (1,977M) was one of the steepest climbs and in full sun. I started to hallucinate a bit on this climb – I saw mountain huts which appeared to be huge rocks. I guess I needed that next stop so badly, that my mind got me through this brutal climb by promising me the next stop was close.

I tried to sleep for a few minutes in the shade of the Refuge Bertone. I was very aware of the dreading cut of time, so I only closed my eyes for 5 minutes before stocking up and moving on. From here, I had an amazing view on the south face of the Mont Blanc (4,810M) and its glaciers coming down. Such an inspiring experience to be on her turf. From here, I started to count down the kilometres, as we passed half way. An important mental milestone

From here, there was a relatively easy (mainly flat) part of the trail leading to Refuge Bonatti (2,015M). Because off my shin issue, again I couldn’t keep the speed I wanted and lost valuable time because I fast hiked instead of ran. At Refuge Bonatti, I called Ellen who told me to man up and get my arse back on the course, as I only had 1h:15m to get to the next stop to make the cut off time. Her telling me that I probably wasn’t the only one who suffered from muscle pain helped me to put things back in perspective and stop focussing too much on my painful lower legs. The next 6 KM, I dribbled / ran and managed to keep a good speed towards the next stop at Arnuva (1,772M). I made up 20 minutes, which gave me a mental boost. I felt ready to attack one of the biggest climbs of the day – grand Col de Ferret (2,527M) – I felt strong going up and passed around 30 runners.

The key in ultra races is to keep eating and drinking, even if you don’t feel like. Specifically with the high temperatures (30 Celsius), I drank at least 1 litre per hour and forced myself to eat something every hour. I stocked up with heaps of gels that provide you with the necessary sugars. Thing is, they are quite difficult to swallow down. After 26 hours racing, there came a time that my stomach started to play up. It would be another 2 hours until the next stop, so I had to go before. What better place than on top of the highest peak in the race, overlooking the valley with the Mnt. Blanc in the background . After cleaning up my mess (I risked a time penalty if I left any “footprints”), it was 10KM down to La Fouly (1,603M). First 4KM of the descent were easy and I managed to run. Last 6 KM into La Fouly were very technical. I knew some of my friends from Le Châble were waiting for me at La Fouly, which made me eager to run as much and fast as I could. The feeling of getting into La Fouly still gives me goosebumps. I drank a Red Bull and hugged my friends, before stocking up. I made up quite some time, so the looming cut off time beast wasn’t an immediate issue anymore. Another mental milestone – I only needed to do another 60KM, which was the length of my first ultra.

From La Fouly, it went down to Orsières (1,100M) from where I climbed to Champex-Lac (1,603M). This is my home turf, I know this area quite well as I have cycled here so many times. Knowing that Ellen and my father in law were waiting for me at Champex-Lac at 1AM raised my spirits. It was between La Fouly and Champex-Lac though that I again started to hallucinate because of sleep deprivation. I started to see faces on every rock and stone that I stepped over and I saw words written on the grass trail. I was very aware of these hallucinations and it actually sharpened me to take good care of myself and to be even more aware of the tricky parts on the trail.

The stop at Champex – Lac felt as a warm bath. The presence of loved ones, stocking up, and getting medical support for my legs was much needed. When I took of my shoes to get my lower legs massaged and taped, a huge blood blister appeared. Medical staff took care of that while I took a 10 min turbo nap. Despite I didn’t really sleep, it makes such a difference to switch of your mind for a second. Ellen provided me with clean socks and a clean long sleeve shirt – I felt re-born.

From Champex-Lac, the counting down continued, “just” 45KM and three more climbs before getting to Chamonix again. Easier said than done…. From Champex-Lac, it went down for a few KM’s before the climb to La Giete (2,050M) started. Before getting to the start of that climb, my hallucinations started to annoy me and mentally wear me out. I stopped for a few minutes to try to take another power nap, but this didn’t work. I felt like loosing valuable time and couldn’t deal with the idea of people passing me while I was napping. So I continued. The climb to La Giete was very steep and technical. I had to use hands and feet to find my way up. I started a conversation with the person in front of me to stay awake (and practise my French). I needed to do this to stay awake and not loose my balance and injure myself.

Closer the top, the terrain became much flatter and right before the top, I got my weirdest hallucination. Initially I saw dome tents everywhere which appeared to be rocks, or I saw cars which appeared to be runners ahead of me. But at this point, the trail ahead of me changed into a very kitsch type of wallpaper design in which Bruno and Suzy appeared. This is when I decided I had to take a nap. Right after crossing the top, I laid down right next to the trail next to another runner and slept for about 10 mins. This made a difference. The descent to Col de Forclaz was long but I managed to keep a decent pace. As this is right above Martigny, the views were familiar which helps as it’s easier to guesstimate the distance to the next stop. From the Col de Forclaz it went down into Trient (1,303M). I was an hour ahead of the cut of time, so I had some time to stock up and get a massage. Although the medical volunteer I encountered wasn’t very helpful. After quickly explaining my issue, he asked me what I wanted him to do. “Mais monsieur, je pense que c’est votre profession, non?” He took my reply with a smile and put more tape on my legs. Not very helpful, but at least it gave me another 10 mins to close my eyes.

From Trient, it went up the Col de Catogne (2,005M) which i “flew up”. I felt strong as an ox and passed around 15 runners. From the top of the this 2nd to last climb, it went down to Vallorcine (1,263M). The first part of the descent was easy but again painful shins, 2nd half very technical, due to its steep and rocky nature. I charged down as part of a train of runners into Vallorcine. Right before we got to the stop at Vallorcine, I paid my debts for charging down the technical descent and seriously hurt my knee. I over burdened my right knee on the descent and the same injury I had 6 weeks before the race played up.

I took the stop at Vallorcine to calm down, asses the situation, stock up and get my knee taped. As it was just 19KM from Chamonix, with one last major climb, I had to feel confident that I could make it to the finish. I told myself to not quit with the finish in sight. The first few KM’s in the run up to the last climb – La Tete aux Vents (2,116M) – were flat and I kept on feeling pain strikes in my knee because of fluid stocking up behind my knee cap. I took a 1000mg paracetamol and called Ellen. We both agreed that even if I had to run the last 19KM on one leg or even crawl, I would not give up.

Once I got to the start of the last climb, I felt good and ready to attack the last thing between me and the finish line. The last climb was long and went straight up. It reminded me of climbing the Table mountain in Capetown, however three times as long. Reaching the top of the Tete Aux Vents (2,116M), we had a relatively flat bit to the last checkpoint. From there, I had 2h:20 mins to attack the last 8KM’s which all went down. I forgot the pain in my legs and ran all the way down which took me exactly one hour.

Getting into Chamonix was an amazing experience. 1,000’s and 1,000’s of people cheering, “Bravo’s” and “Courage” from everybody. With similar emotions I started, I finished the race. First things I thought when crossing the finish line::

* Done, I can tick this one off.
* Definitely want to do this again and cut of a good few hours of my time.

Things I have learned from my preparation and the race::

  • I could have been better prepared with more training KM’s in the bag. It might have gotten me around my shin issues that early in the race.
  • I could have dropped 2 more KG, which I guess is mainly a mental thing and not so much a physical advantage in my case. I’m too heavy to run these
    distances anyway
  • I’m able to overcome every dip, big or small.. There will always come a moment when you look at the race with different eyes and another mindset.
  • Divide the race in chunks. This mentally allows you to run a long race like this. Run from checkpoint to checkpoint and don’t think too much about the full distance you need to cover.
  • Remember that you are not the only one who’s is taking part in this suffer fest. Everybody around you fights a battle – stop wining and keep going.
  • Listen to your body and mind and keep talking to yourself that what you see during hallucinations is a result from serious sleep deprivation and – as I later learned – an overload on sugar intake. Stop and take a turbo nap.
  • The type of physical pain I felt is mainly a mental thing. When I needed to make a cut off time, I could run despite my painful shins. When the finish
    was in sight, I could run downwards for 8 straight KM’s. Pain is weakness leaving the body. Just get through it and you’ll reach the other side.

What I have been told, is that certain people have taken inspiration from my run. Although honoured, it feels as too much credits for me. But the fact that I got Ellen hooked on trail running and apparently inspired her to successfully join her first trail run earlier this year is what I see as one of the most rewarding things that came out of my love for the sport. And obviously, the support and awareness we raised for Vrienden van Vlinderkind!