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Completing the UTMB

Updated: Apr 17, 2018

1st of September 2013

The race had been brutal. Everything hurts: toes, feet, knees, legs, shoulders, friction sores on back and collar bone, nose bleed, sore throat, and bruised ears. Come on, I mean who gets bruised ears from running? I had been wheezing & coughing up yellow gloop from my lungs. Had the shits for five hours. And of course I had had full on hallucinations and delirium. At one point I became so tired I had fallen asleep running. But now I had stopped, it was all over.

Many many many hours earlier…

The sun was beaming down on us. Crowds of spectators were waving flags and smiling proudly at their loved ones who were now bravely smiling back from the start line of the UTMB 2013.  My feet and knees were taped. My armpits, nuts and arse were lubed with fermented papaya cream. I was super hydrated with a belly full of pasta. Man I was happy, happy and ready. Hits of 2013 were playing through massive speakers and an MC was trying desperately to get us all to dance. Ecstatically happy I was, but I also needed the toilet and didn’t want to put extra pressure on my already busting bladder by dancing to Euro pop, so I just stood, smiled and waved my poles. The elites joined us and excitement was reaching a fever pitch. It was 2 minutes to take off. This was the moment I had been looking forward to. Every year they start the race by playing Conquest of Paradise by Vangelis. Stop reading this now, click here to be directed to You Tube so that you can play the song and then carry on reading.

The atmosphere was phenomenal. It seemed possible to feel every single bit of effort, training, apprehension and determination that every single person of the line-up of 2,300 people had gone through to get to this moment. The spectators on the other side of the start line were at least 10 people deep in places. People from over 70 countries all waving flags and ringing cow bells, all waiting to cheer you on, no matter if they knew you or not. My neighbour turned to shake my hand and wished me good luck with a mixture of excitement and nerves clearly showing in her eyes. If only that moment of elation could stay with me for the duration of my attempt. But from previous experience I knew that what laid in front of me would take long enough for every emotion to show itself, to then only fade and be overtaken by its polar opposite. The next 168km, with 9600m of vertical gain would take everything I had in me to complete it in the maximum of 46 hours allowed.

The gun went off and so it had begun. Surprisingly quickly the jubilant mood began to change. The tide of runners, which carried me away from Chamonix, slowly swept me into the mountains. The “florescent glow” shining off the world was fading, everyone now were looking deep into themselves to understand the gravity of what had just started. Each runner was beginning to implement plans that had been designed to the minute detail, months before.

I believe that a large part of training for these kinds of events is just tricking your head into thinking that you are ready for them. So my game plan was simple. If you look after your feet, food, water and salt, the rest is just head games. But also, apart from physical injury, it’s these head games that will help you find any old excuse to convince yourself that you should stop.

So my game plan was to keep back these monsters from inside my head by finding things that made me smile. That and to eat all I could get my hands on. When I say eat I mean EAT. Ultra marathons have been described to be more like eating competitions then running races. When I say eating I do not mean little dainty expensive energy gels. I mean big cheese sandwiches, bowls of pasta, mugs of noodle soup, chunks of salami, bunches of bananas, mini pork pies, slices of pizza, bags of cola bottle sweets. Simply put, if it‘s there then eat it. I also had a carbohydrate powder that I had mixed into my water bladder. I thought the extra carbs would help and it is a system that has worked for me before. But my guts had different ideas. I started to get cramps, gurgling and spluttering about an hour after taking down these fluids. Soon I was urgently searching for rocks and trees to crouch behind.

As I continued to be unable to eat, it did not take long before my energy levels were at rock bottom and the darkness of negativity began to veil my thoughts. I was not even a quarter of the way into the race and my mind was already considering the possibility of stopping. Thoughts like “If I could not eat how could I complete it” started circling in my head. So I started to suck on cola bottle sweets and drink Coke to get some calories into me. I forced myself to continue and continued to do so for the next 4 hours until finally the cramps began to subside. I began to reintroduce bananas and bread, which seemed to work. Slowly and steadily I began to refuel and everything around me got “brighter”, it was still dark and dawn was a long way off but life was starting to feel good again.

Before long it was nearing dawn on the first night and the moon was out and it was illuminating the southeast flanks of Mt Blanc. A small light could be seen high above, nestled amongst the mountains flanks, which I presumed was a hut for climbers. As they would be getting early starts to go climbing a sight of a never ending line of head torch lights shining out from the hundreds of runners snaking their way up and over the passes was going to greet them from far below.

I approached the top of one of the many passes as the dawn sky was starting to brighten. It is moments like this that fill you with an amazing sense of privilege to be apart of the very few who get to enter this race, let alone complete it. At that moment I had food in my belly and a spring in my step. I was nearing the 70km point and I was feeling good. “Just” under 100km to go, all was good in the camp of Dave, but I knew that the euphoric feeling would not last, and all I really wanted at that moment was to get to Courmayeur where food and a change of cloths would be waiting.

It is always hard to pull yourself away from the checkpoints. Courmayeur was especially so; it almost felt like I had finished a race within a race. But I held my focus, kept my eyes away from the draw of comfort, changed into a new mindset and headed back into the fray. The climb out from Courmayeur was a hard one, my legs were fighting my stomach for blood. My belly felt like bursting from the amount of pasta I had eaten at the checkpoint and it was now trying desperately to digest it. But once the pasta had been absorbed the fatigue of the first night seemed far behind and I felt comfortable in the routine I was in. The hours were ticking by and the kilometers were falling at my feet. The checkpoints were arriving before I needed them and the sun was swooping on its arc through the sky and it would soon be dropping down below the horizon.

But with the arrival of darkness came a feeling of dread that began to creep around me. Each footstep became harder and I began to long for the next checkpoint. The jubilant carnival feeling of a checkpoint could be heard long before you arrived so when the path deviated away from the sound it seemed like a harsh waste of energy, which heavily ate into my supply of “grit”. The sound of the cowbells was often the first sign that I was approaching a checkpoint so once I was quite shocked to realise that the sound of the cowbells was actually coming from cows and they did not signal a place of smiles, food and warmth. Now the sun had gone and with it my supply of “grit”.

I was going into my second night with 46km left on my plate. I was wheezing and my lungs started to gurgle on yellow gloop. This to one side I was actually starting to feel like this actually might be possible. I had fresh batteries in my torch and I was desperately stuffing jelly babies into my mouth. I had broken the back of the race, but now It was time to get down and dirty and get some more grit about me. From now on this trip was going to get dark and even more brutal. As long as I kept moving in the right direction I would always finish. Right? Just never stop and I WILL finish. This is all I could think about. Entering into the small Alpine villages gave my morale a boost as I would rub shoulders again with humanity. Young children and adults alike, hands outstretched waiting for high fives, cow bells swinging, shouting words of encouragement. I would feed on this encouragement causing a blip of elation to rise in me, carrying me forwards another 100m. The support you receive from spectators in all hours of the night from people of all ages is one of the aspects that really make this event so special.

I was exhausted, absolutely spent. Running in a daze, not knowing at all what I was doing or why I was doing it. At one point I was certain that it was me who had placed all the reflective route markers along the way and I was wondering what people thought of them. I believed I had done this to develop a method of measuring down hill running speed. Ehh? I would have asked runners next to me for their feedback on my route markers, but I couldn’t find any English speakers. I was in Cuckoo Land. Something deep in me told me this was nonsense but I could not for the life of me remember why I was there so route marking made as much sense as anything else. Then the hallucinations started. At first the odd branch looked like a moving animal, nothing great in the world of “seeing things”. But then there they were, on every flat rock I passed was a very detailed painting. The paintings varied massively from pastel painting of the faces of a mother and her baby to a humanlike boxing angry rabbit bouncing off the face of a boulder. There were ink sketches of flocks of crows gathering into dark and stormy clouds and many more. Even if I looked away the same painting would keep its position on the rock when I would glance back. I was certified bonkers, and I knew it but there was nothing I could do from escaping it. Of course that was until I started to fall asleep.

Here is a good moment to restart the song if it has already stopped.

Trail running and sleeping do not mix, it’s a no brainer. But I could not hold my eyes open for any time longer then about 10 seconds before they would droop again which was followed by the “jump” came and I would try to force them open again. Passing rocks no longer had paintings on them but instead they now looked as comfy as a soft warm bed. Grassy banks were beckoning me to lie down. I knew if I did that I would not be getting back up. I had been stepping over enough people with feet stretched out snoozing to know what would happen if I rested. I needed to wake up, before I would fall over. It was time to pull out the big guns. I got my Ipod shuffle out and skipped to ‘The Pin Ball Wizard’ by the Who. The initial twang of the guitar in the intro had the effect of water being thrown in my face. It was not many more songs after that that I was awake again and my pace was storming. The rising sun was starting to glimmer on snow capped peaks and I knew that I only had a few more hours of effort left to complete the full length of the UTMB.

The UTMB is not a race that the majority competes for a place in. Almost everyone is out just to try and complete it and the camaraderie that this shared effort creates is one of the best parts of the whole event and one of the main reasons why many people keep coming back, year after year. Secretly they may have a time they would like to beat, but mostly it’s all about trying to finish the race and trying to help and encourage others to do the same. So you do not try and overtake the guy in front. That just isn’t the right thing to do, right? Bollocks to that, suddenly I was out for blood. I was on the last hill. OK it was 1000m of hill, but it was the last one. My teeth were bared and I was racing on a mixture of newfound energy, adrenaline and a sniff of the finish line. I was picking off whomever I could get in my sights. My feet were under automatic control skipping from one rock to the next. I was flying.

Deep in the valley below I could see the start of Chamonix and I knew that there laying in wait was the finish line. My knees were screaming and the earlier elation was fading. The path felt never ending, but then there it finally was, just in front of me, tarmac and the start of the road. That must mean there was only a km or so of running left. Just then another runner came past me. By the time I hit the tarmac he was ahead and with a clear spring in his step, a spring that was absolutely lacking in my step. “Ok, focus and move you legs”. My mind began counting 1 to 4 and back to 1 again. I ordered my legs to keep up with my mind’s counting. Amazingly my legs listened so I started counting faster and again my legs listened. So I kept increasing the pace. My fellow runner was keeping pace too, so I continued to up my speed until I began to edge away. But I was still about 800m out from the finish, could I keep the pace going? Nothing for it now 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4…  My mind was spinning, my eyes were blurry but focused trying to stop myself from falling over. It was Sunday morning and the high street of Chamonix was bustling with people out to get their morning coffee and croissants. Chickens were starting to be roasted and bread stalls were still full with freshly baked baguettes. The air was full of cheering, applause and laughter. They were cheering for me. I was there, almost there, two more corners left. Children outstretched their hands for high fives. Sweat was stinging my eyes and my mind was high with muffled doped up thoughts. There it was, the finish line, the same line that I left 41:17:56 earlier, the same line that I needed to cover 168km of rough trail and path with over 9,600m of height gain to see again. I had done it, I had completed the UTMB!

885 people had crossed the line before me and another 800 were still yet to cross the line, 27% of those that started would never share the joy of crossing the finish line. I saw some waiting friends and they kept me vertical as I hobbled across to a patch of shade next to a refreshment stand. I slumped to the ground and pulled the ring pull and listened to one of the best sounds I had heard in a long time, a sound which meant success, a remarkable achievement, time to rest, and of course 330ml of ice cold beer.

About the Author: I work as an expedition guide, safety consultant and production manager. In short I keep people safe and happy so that they can achieve their goals. Click here to find more about me and what services I can offer.


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