The starting area in the main square of the small Swiss town of Orsières was crowded even though it was nearly 40 minutes till the race was due to start. Having already queued for the restroom for 30 minutes, eaten all my pre-race snacks, applied sunscreen, shed all my extra layers and deposited my drop bag, I simple stood around, watching people and feeling stupid for not having anyone to talk to.
Nervous selfie near the start in Orsières
As time passed, the square became more and more packed. People pushed passed me, moving forward towards the starting arch. I guessed I was somewhere roughly in the middle, which I thought was probably just fine. Don’t go out too fast! I reminded myself. As the crowd grew, the noise around me escalated, with people jabbering to each other in numerous languages. They were competing to be heard over the boom of disembodied voices through the loudspeakers. The speakers reminded us of how the UTMB races united France, Italy and Switzerland, and how this was our moment!
It didn’t feel like my moment. For the first time I understood how farm chickens, stuffed into barns so tightly they can barely move, feel. I was ready to fly this coop!
Finally - finally - the start signal went off, and the crowd shuffled forward as one. I was a small cog in a big machine, with no choice but to move at the pace dictated by the masses. After passing under the start arch, the shuffle became a jog, and soon we were trotting through the streets of Orsières. All the school children in Orsières stood line up along the streets, waiting to be high-fived by passing runners.
I passed out of Orisères and started on the first climb on a steeply graded dirt road. Many people got their trekking poles out, but given how crowded it still was I considered this a dangerous proposition. I felt stressed, like I wanted to pass lots of people and charge up the climb. Looking at my heart rate though, I knew that this seemingly slow pace would probably prove quite wise. I would wait until the race stretch out a bit to worry about passing people!
At the top of the climb the first rays of sun touch me, and I steeled myself for the heat to come. As the road descended, the field of runners stretched like a Slinky. I let my legs roll along at what I felt was a casual pace, but I was passing people left and right. I was starting to suspect I should have pushed for a place further forward at the start.
After the initial descent, the course hit a paved road and started climbing once again. I passed through a bucolic Swiss mountain village, the name of which I do not know, but which I call ‘the Village of More Cowbell’. Cowbells, large and small, rang out through the hazy morning, cheering us on. I couldn’t help but smile. It might be crowded, but this race had energy.
The elders of the Village of More Cowbell.
Soon the road veered off onto single track, mercifully in the shade. However, technical, steep areas in the narrow trail caused traffic jams, and the conga line of people was moving so slowly it was sometimes literally standing still. I started to get irritated at the organizers who had decided to pack this many people onto the course, but reminded myself that it was still early and I would be able to pass people later.
I rolled through the aid station in Champex, stopping only to snag some Reese’s peanut butter cups out of my pack. I was glad I had filled my water bladder to its max and thus didn’t need to fill yet, saving time. There was a long runnable section after Champex, which I spent passing people, before the grade steepened and threw us into another climb. We climbed around a valley, first on the shady side and then in the exposed sun. I remembered this particular section of the trail vividly from when I mountain biked the TMB. The climb was much easier without the added weight of pushing a 12 kg mountain bike up the hill!
I focused on not working too hard in the hot sun, drinking water and enjoying the view. I had certainly earned it.
Beautiful views on the way up to La Giete.
As we approached the top of the climb, the trail flattened out and the landscape opened up out of the trees. I hear the chunk-chunk-chunk of rotating helicopter blade, and saw the source of the noise swoop passed me. There was a camera man filming us from the helicopter. I threw my hands in the air and cheered, not sure how I felt about a helicopter up there but marvelling at the absurdity of the whole situation.
I stowed my poles as I reached the top of the climb and started to run the descent. There was a water station a few minutes down the hill, but feeling my pack I decided I could to fill water at the big aid station in Trient. I bounced down the descent, passing people left and right and generally having a great time. I was drinking more water than I had gambled on though, and ran out just above the hotel at Col de Forclaz. I didn’t see a spigot obviously available at Col de Forclaz, so I decided to suck it up and go without water down to Trient.
The downhill from Forclaz to Trient probably took less than 15 minutes, but my mouth grew dry from the lack of water, and I wondered if I had made a horrible mistake in not filling up my water bladder up on the mountain. At Trient, I saw Audun for the first time. He had ridden a rental road bike from Chamonix to spectate.
“You look great!” he exclaimed, “How do you feel?"
“I feel fine, but I’m out of water,” I said seriously, “Where is the aid station?!” I had another flight of stairs to climb before I got water.
Arriving at the aid station in Trient. Photo by Audun
I sat down for the first and last time at the aid station in Trient, slurping a bowl of too hot noodle soup. I needed the salt, I reasoned. I also took of my t-shirt and dunk the whole thing in the water trough, trying to stay wet and cool. I met Audun at the far side of the aid station, and we walk together a little ways down the street before I bid him farewell. I had another mountain to climb.
The climb from Trient went up to the high point of the day, Catogne, at a little over 2000 meters. I got my poles back out, and focused on drinking lots of water, snacking, and moving at a sustainable pace. It was a race going at a snail’s pace, and although I was still passing people I was doing so at a crawl. We were in the true heat of the day now, and lots of people stopped to take breaks in the meager shade provided by trees along the switchbacks
Crested the high point of the day in Catogne.
At Catogne, I was handed a bottle of water and immediately dumped to whole thing over my head. I was feeling the heat, but not as bad as I feared. So far, I wasn’t dizzy and I felt strong uphill, but even more downhill. And it was time for another big downhill, this time to Vallorcine. I let my mind go and my legs go faster, and even passed some mountain bikers as the trail zig-zagged through the forest. As I popped out of the trees and saw the village of Vallorcine appear before me, I heard cheers. There were people lined up on the way into the village, spectating. I gathered the energy of their enthusiasm and used it to propel me towards the aid station.
Keeping up the pace coming in to Vallorcine. Photo by Audun
In the aid station, I spent a few minutes cooling off in the water trough and snacking before heading out. Looking at my watch, I knew there could only be a few kilometers left until I hit Trel le Champ and the final 14K of the course which I had run with Audun two days previously. It was nice to know I would be on familiar terrain.
Cooling off - the right way - in Vallorcine. Photo by Audun
The next kilometers were the worst. The course coming out of Vallorcine was a gradual climb towards Col de Montets, across grassy fields in the unrelenting sun. I forced myself to alternate between walking and running. The course dovetailed the road, and Audun kept cycling up the road to pop up at various moments.
“This part is aweful,” I told him, “I feel terrible."
“You’re walking way faster than everyone around you though!” he remarked. This was true. Many people were moving at zombie-march pace, while I was still power hiking.
Downing a gel at Col des Montets. Photo by Audun.
Still, when I came over the top of Col de Montets, the landscape opened up into a spectacular view of the Mont Blanc massif. I threw my hands up into the air and smiled. This is what I am here for! I thought. I hit the final climb towards La Flegère hard, pulling my poles out of my pack and pushing up the trail. I didn’t want to leave anything behind on the course.
For the first time all day, I wasn’t in a line of people dictating the pace. I found it almost comically difficult to set the pace on my own. I would be moving fast, then start to feel dizzy and wonder if this was sustainable for another hour of climbing. I would slow down and laugh at the glacial pace of my legs.
Out with the poles, headed for La Flegère. Photo by Audun
The trail climbed 200 vertical meters before diving down the most technical descent all day. I knew this was coming, though, and launched myself off rocks and roots with my poles. As the trail started to climb again, the final 400 vertical, I started to feel the heat get to me. Would I actually faint if I kept pushing? I wondered through my dizzy haze. I drank more water, and thought about the Central Governor, a theory in exercise physiology that says that pain is actually your brain limiting your body in order to protect it, rather than your body telling you it is near its limit. Was I near my limit? I didn’t dare go any closer, and so kept drink water and moving at a steady, slow pace. For the first time all day, a few people were passing me.
The final climb to La Flegère was on a murderously open ski slope. The only thing that kept me going was the thought of the beautiful descent to come. I knew I could crush it. I stowed my poles as I crested the top, and stopped briefly at the aid station to down some energy drink. I was surprised to see how many people were actually sitting down in the aid station tent. Come on! I thought, only 7K to go, and downhill to boot! No use stopping here!
I began descending, once again passing people, but my joy was brief as the oh-so-familiar pain of side stitch dug itself into my stomach. Why? I wailed to myself, This part is supposed to go fast! But I made myself breath, and slow down slightly, and soon enough the side stitch disappeared. This time I had beat the demon.
I positively flew down the hill, and found Audun at the begin of the final paved kilometers to Chamonix Centre.
“My watch died back there,” I told him, “So this last part isn’t going to be on Strava. Guess I should just stop now!” I was of course joking, and accelerated passed another runner. In the corner of my eye, I saw the runner drop, crumpling to the pavement. What had happened? Audun stopped to look after him though, and I figured there was nothing I could do, so I ran on.
Finding my stride in the final Ks to Chamonix. Photo by Audun.
Faster and faster I went, through a blur of streets with volunteers pointing the way. I felt really good - I was running with a stride similar to my 10K race pace - and when I saw the finish line I sprinted with every ounce of muscle fiber I had left. I passed one more person on the final sprint to the finish, before jumping over the finish line.
9 hours. 15 minutes. 24 seconds. It was over.
I was 28th out of 317 women, and 215 out of 1231 finishers over all. Nearly 200 people dropped out along the way. I moved up 700 places from the first to the final checkpoint. Great success? I think so. But I have to learn to start further forward!
Recovery - the right way - at our campground outside of Chamonix. Note the strategically placed bag of potato chips. Photo by Audun.
- The Wild Bazilchuk