Lining up for UTMB on August 26, 2016 was surreal. I wasn’t nervous and I am not sure I was even excited. The only way to describe what I felt is blessed. The 16 days leading up to the race were spent with my family on the most amazing vacation of a lifetime around Europe. The trip had been in the works for years and it was better than I could have imagined. However there was a point a few days before departing for Europe that I thought my health was going to completely ruin our plans and prevent me from running.
As a result, this is much more than a race report.
The following is more about my health than most people would probably want to know. However, I believe it may be an important lesson to those of us who push our bodies beyond normal limits. I made the huge decision in April to leave my previous employer which involved some risk and a great deal of faith. The new job began on May 1st and my 90-day plan was aggressive both professionally and personally.
I was new to the organization, had greater responsibility than my previous role, wanted to make an impact quickly, and realized that taking a 3-week vacation in my first 4 months was rather bold. If the new job and planning for Europe weren’t enough during that period, I kept my body busy. I ran the Cruel Jewel 100-Miler the 2nd week in May, began serious training for UTMB in June and July, and decided to go on a diet called the Whole 30.
I went on this 30-day diet to see if I could identify what food triggered my ulcerative colitis. I also knew I’d be enjoying myself and putting a few pounds on in Europe, so I thought I could lose some weight in advance of the trip. The Whole 30 has you eliminate all foods that might trigger an auto-immune or allergic response. It requires that you eliminate grains, all dairy, legumes, honey, and many other rules that were a challenge (click on link if you want to read more). I was busy and feeling good through June and most of July.
I was excited for the trip, the job was going well, and training was exactly where I wanted to be. One morning I went to meet my friends Matt and Bobby “Goat” for some speed work. I was 3-weeks into the diet and had a tough time the previous week keeping up during the workout on an empty stomach. For the first time in a long time I decided to eat before a run. I made a shake to keep my energy up using a new brand of almond butter. By the time I ran up to them at our meeting spot across from the hospital, I was having trouble breathing and continued with them to the ER where I was immediately admitted and given Benadryl, epinephrine and some other goodies. Things resolved, I was discharged and I swore I’d never eat that almond butter again.
Training picked back up and was going strong. Then two weeks later on a Thursday, and a less than a week before we were scheduled to depart, I left my house to walk my dog. By the time I got back to my house I was swelling up, breaking out with hives, and having trouble breathing. I took Benadryl, jammed my thigh with an Epi-Pen I had picked up after the last incident, and had Alison rush me back to the ER. No almond butter and no real trigger. The same team at the ER took care of me and everyone was stumped. I was discharged and made an appointment with an allergist that afternoon. Given my plans, she suggested that I go on antihistamines twice daily and bring Epi-Pens with me to Europe.
I was definitely nervous about this occurring on vacation and knew that my health was more important. Bobby and others began to suggest it may be the stress from everything I have shared until this point. I felt like had everything under control and didn’t agree with them until that Sunday.
The chart to the left is an important reminder for runners while racing or training. However I normally drink plenty of fluids and have never approached the “see medical” color. I will only say that after a great run followed by church on Sunday, I went home and my urine was off the chart. My father had bladder cancer and urine in his blood was one symptom he experienced. I was no longer nervous but was scared even though I knew this could happen with training. I went to the ER and they didn’t have any answers. The lack of a diagnosis was becoming annoying and with only three days before we left for Europe, I was wondering what was next. Fortunately I am personal friends with a urologist and he was able to see me. He reassured me that I had two things going against me and my father’s cancer wasn’t one of them (bladder cancer is not believed to be hereditary). He suggested my endurance running and recent bouts with anaphylaxis were possible causes of the blood. Like the allergist who wanted to run more tests but couldn’t because of my trip, he suggested or rather prescribed that I not run for 7-10 days and then to take it easy. As far as UTMB, nobody would or could tell me what to do. I would see how everything went and while running UTMB would be nice, enjoying Europe with my family was my main goal.
We arrived at Manchester Airport in the United Kingdom where we started the trip visiting Alison’s family in York followed by a few days in London that was fun for us all. We then headed to Rome where we spent four incredible days followed by four days in Florence, a quick trip to Pisa, and then a wonderful 36 hours in Tuscany that began on August 24th.
I had obviously stopped the Whole 30 diet by the time we arrived at JFK airport on August 10th but was definitely a few pounds lighter. The following 16 days were filled with great food, coffee, and wine. I normally avoid alcohol, caffeine, and watch what I eat leading up to a race. However I enjoyed my family and the experience with nothing off-limits.
We had a delicious dinner in a town called Barga on the 24th with fantastic wine. On the 25th we departed for Chamonix, France. While my family slept a good amount on the 6 hour drive, I stayed awake with lots of cappuccino and arrived in this beautiful town just in time to get my race number and have my pack checked.
UTMB Starting Line and Daylight
The scene at the starting line was like nothing else I have ever seen at an ultra. From the time we arrived in Chamonix less than 24 hours prior, the atmosphere most closely resembled what I had remembered Boston feeling like before “The Marathon”. Despite the electricity in the air and the thousands of runners surrounding me, I was at ease with the challenge ahead. Based on what I had read and the mountains the stood over us, I knew it was going to be like no other race I had experienced with over 33,000 feet of climbing for 170km (105 miles). The wonder of His creation and beauty that surrounded us did not look real given how beautiful it was.
I never think about the finish with these races but rather focus on what lies ahead in the short-term. What I had not expected was that despite it taking me over 45 hours, I would look back at this start and eventual finish as being one of my favorite races ever.
It felt like a stampede as we took off down the streets lined with screaming fans ten people deep. I imagined that this is what the Tour De France must feel like give the enthusiasm of the huge European crowd screaming encouragement in their native languages, waving flags, banging cow bells and much more. The pace was ridiculous but I was staying within myself. Few people were talking and this continued to feel less and less like any ultra I had experienced.
I was surprised at how long it was before we began our first climb and it wasn’t nearly as challenging as what lay ahead. I came through the first aid station enjoying myself in the top 500 of over 2600 runners. I continued to thank the Lord for the trip, for getting to this point, and I made sure to take in as much as I could.
The Second Aid Station, The Night, and The Sleep Monsters
It was dark by the time I arrived at Saint Gervais aid station but it might as well been a party in the middle of the day. There was music blasting and more people than I saw at the finish line for Western States. Much like at the start, the multicultural fans with their flags and noise makers were encouraging us all on. It was after 10pm and little kids with their parent and grandparents were giving high fives. Some would look to see the flag on my Bib and would yell words of support in broken English. All I could think of the whole time I was going through this village was, “WOW!”
Here is also where I continued my streak of many firsts for this race. At the aid station I figured I would see how my stomach would handle some bread and salami with a little Coke. I filled my water bottles and took off filled with energy and renewed optimism. This approach was repeated many times and despite my ulcerative colitis, I never had GI issues during the race.
Too Early For Sleep Monsters
Prior to entering this festival of positive energy and support, I was getting nervous given how tired I had been feeling since 9pm. It wasn’t long after the Saint Gervais aid station when my energy levels really began to plummet. I was partly afraid of cut-offs but was more concerned about how I would make it through a second night which it was almost definitely going to take to finish.
By the time I reached Les Contamine, I decided to regroup with a short rest, and take in enough calories to ensure that nutrition wouldn’t be an issue later. Other runners were flying in and out so fast at this stop, that by the next aid station I was almost in 1,500th place. I had no idea at the time and really didn’t care. I was running my own race and knew my goal was to finish.
I will say that I have no idea how I made it up the next climb which was memorable. To look up and see hundreds of headlamps appear to be rising into the stars was challenging at the time. The only reassurance was when I looked back and saw just as many behind me from the valley below. I made it to La Balme, rested a little, and continued over Croix du Bonhomme at over 8,000’ before descending down into Les Chapieux aid station.
I entered the aid station around 4am and intended to take a long nap. The place was packed and noisy which didn’t help my plan. I refueled and decided to try to keep moving. It was getting late and I didn’t have a sense of the cut-offs at this point.
I noticed they were checking runners packs to ensure they had the required gear with them when I entered the aid station. By the time I ate, made a pit stop, and began to depart, this had stopped. I was glad that I would not lose time but realized that they probably thought some of us needed all the help we could get.
Right after leaving I once again had trouble focusing and saw many runners lying asleep on the side of the trail. I found a nice little area to lay down and had set my phone for what I thought would be 15 minutes. The next thing I knew was I was being shaken by someone. I thought it was another runner who was checking to see if I was ok and said I was fine without opening my eyes. The individual was speaking to me and as I arose, noticed a few individuals with reflective vest. It didn’t take me long to realize that these were the sweepers checking for runners after the cut-off. I was now wide awake and they asked if I was able to finish. It was funny to me and joked by asking if I was officially Dead “Freaking” Last. They confirmed that I was at that point but I quickly picked up the pace and was soon passing other runners.
Excuses Excuses Excuses
Within an hour the sun began to rise and I was wide awake. I arrived at the Col de la Seigne check point where I was told we had approximately 5K left and that the cut-off was at 10am. I felt like I had time and was enjoying myself taking pictures, praising the Lord, and just enjoying the experience (see picture). Unfortunately it was a little more than 5K and it wasn’t all downhill as I had thought. First I descended before climbing back up to almost 8,500’ over some snow and boulders. Time was running out and I was paying for wasting too much time. As I came over a ridge and looked down at my watch and where I saw the aid station, panic set it. It seemed like a cruel joke with a very technical descent over boulders and scree that stood between me and the cut-off.
I was a maniac, jumping and running in such a way that I didn’t think about what would happen if I fell. I decided to ignore my watch and prayed the entire way down while also creating a draft of this blog, explaining why I missed this cut-off.
A challenge at UTMB is that I found many runners don’t necessarily want to move aside if someone is coming behind them quickly and yelling “excuse me” in 4 languages. Most of the runners were descending slowly using their poles and watching their step. Although I was in the back of the pack most of the race, no one passed me on the technical descents with poles. I attribute this to having my hands free thanks to my Hardrock Ultra vest that allowed me to quickly put my poles away and pull them out when need for accents.
I hit a runnable section at the base of the mountain and took off like a lunatic towards the aid station. I stumbled in and was told I had 5 minutes to fill up and get out if I planned to continue.
The rest of the day was enjoyable and I paid much closer attention to the cut-offs. I realized at this point that this was going to take me longer than any other race, so I might as well enjoy it. I knew the next night was going to be brutal, but decided that I would take a 15 min nap at any aid station if needed.
I entered Italy and eventually arrived at the halfway point of Courmayeur just before 1pm. It was the only location that we could have a drop bag and I made good use of it. I changed into new clothes, refreshed my supplies and enjoyed pasta, soup, and much more. I was feeling good, given what I had just run, and felt confident about finishing. It was getting rather warm and after the long stop and big meal, I walked towards the first climb of the second half of the race. There was a large group of us all of who appeared to be in similar shape at that point. We walked for a while through little alleyways and cobblestone streets that were absolutely beautiful (I would love to return there one day). It was very warm as the sun beat down on us overhead on the exposed streets. As we approached the trail head near some trees, some of the group decided to lay down and take a little siesta. Clearly I didn’t need an invite or excuse and set my phone for 15-minutes.
Making Friends Before Dark
I was the first to wake up from the nap and many from the group were still out cold. I got up and quickly began to climb again with the sun overhead. It was warm but I kept moving, feeling refreshed and encouraging others along the way. The rest of the afternoon was enjoyable with some challenging climbs, beautiful views, and engaging with some fellow runners along the way. It was great to connect with individuals from the US, Mexico, and Poland who were all struggling together but enjoying this incredible journey.
As night approached, I knew it was a matter of time before the sleep monsters returned. By the time I reached La Fouly I had already taken one nap and was ready to crash again as I entered the tent. There had been lightning all around in the mountains as I approached the aid station and it wasn’t long before the skies opened up. I was eating and hoped that the rain would stop after I took another nap. I was ahead of the cut-offs by almost an hour and thought I’d take advantage of the warm, dry tent. I slept and waited, slept a little more and the rain wasn’t letting up. It was definitely colder and I put on the waterproof pants that were required although I had never worn them. I was not excited at going out but was motivated by the announcement that we had 10 minutes before the cut-off time.
Fortunately the weather improved and I didn’t have to keep these layers on for long. I packed it back up and continued on to Champed-Lac, where the food selection was great once again. This aid station also had a tent with a mattress that I couldn’t resist laying down on again for 15 minutes. From there I struggled staying awake on the next climb which was scary at times. I wasn’t alone and saw groups of people like I have never seen before sleeping along the side of the trail. Other runners would pass me when I would have trouble focusing and would stop for a second. However, this all changed when we reached the summit of La Giète.
I mentioned previously that I love to descend and knew the sun would be rising soon. This motivated me to pick it up. Everyone who had passed the sleepy runner on the way up probably didn’t recognize me as the lunatic flying past them as my adrenaline flowed and senses sharpened. I descended into the beautiful town of Trient where I realized I probably went a little too fast but it had been so much fun. It was about 6:30am and there were mattresses again where I once again took my last 15 minute nap of UTMB after a quick meal. I felt like I could smell the barn but knew I had a long way to go.
To the Finish
After Trient and another huge climb and descent, I made it to Vallorcine aid station in less than 3 hours. I was having fun and this aid station was packed. I had no desire to sit and wanted to keep moving. I was in and out in less than 20 minutes which was quick compared to every other aid station since Saint Gervias.
I felt great and took it easy on a long flat trail until I faced the last huge climb. As I approached the trailhead I looked straight up and saw runners all the way to the top. It was definitely the steepest section I can remember and decided to focus on what was in front of me as opposed to what was above. I started to climb and noticed that there many hikers on the trail. It made it rather challenging at times, even though I was still feeling good and trying to move fast. I found myself moving well compared to others on the trail, and felt like this section reminded me very much of Mt. Tammany in NJ where I did some of my training. However the big difference was that where the training run results in 1200’ in 1.5miles, this last climb was more like more than double that with an altitude reaching over 7K’ after nearly 100 miles of running.
I reached the summit and I thought it would be smooth sailing, but I was wrong. Rocks were everywhere, and as I approached the last aid station of La Flegere, it felt like I stepped on a pea followed by a warm sensation in my shoe. A blister that had been growing finally burst under the ball of my foot and within a few steps I was in pain. I initially used my poles to reduce the pressure on it but then realize how little I had left and decided to just suck it up and ignore the pain.
The final descent was challenging but I was moving nicely knowing the end was at the bottom. Once I hit the road, I knew it was only a short distance before my youngest daughter Olivia would join me into the finish. I saw my family and gave everyone a hug and kiss before continuing on for a few more steps to complete what would be my longest race ever.
Crossing the finish line with Olivia was special and having my family there at the end made this whole experience that much more memorable. I knew this wasn’t going to be a race that I was going to do well in and yet I didn’t know it would feel as special as it did. The challenges and concerns I had leading up to this race made the finish that much more amazing. They also made me line up with a different attitude and one that served me well. I continually looked to the Lord for strength, and I believe He was with me the whole time. Seeing His beauty around me was truly humbling and allowed me to take in the experience in a way I have never done at any race before. There is so much that I remember in terms of the beauty, experience, runners, and other aspects of this race compared to others. All of this makes me want to return again…. But next time it will be to compete (against myself) , not just complete!
Race Details and Other Miscellaneous Thoughts
Probably the only disappointment I had after completing the race was the ugly finishers vest I had looked so forward to wearing. However, here are some ideas that may help others who may be wondering about my training and the race:
- Hiking Poles: Definitely glad I trained and used poles! I am not a fan of using them on descents personally but they are amazing for climbing.
- Food at Aid Stations: Definitely different from in the US but I must say that the salami, bread, pasta and other items worked well for me. It was a gamble but believe real food mixed with gels works better for me than gels alone. Then again I had plenty of time to sleep and digest so not sure how accurate that will be for future events.
- Footwear: The Hoka Challenger ATR were great! However I wish I had worn gaiters as I had lots of dirt and rocks in my shoes which really beat up my feet.
- Pack: The ultimate direction Hardrock series pack was perfect for my required materials and I loved being able to attach the poles in the front of the vest.
- Whole 30: Definitely helped with my UC and I will go back on in the fall. However, I am not sure I identified if certain foods trigger my condition more than others but know that processed foods are a real contributor.
(To see live footage from the race and my results, click here and enter bib #983) http://utmb.livetrail.net/coureur.php
I hope you enjoyed this long race report and please feel free to reach out if you have any comments or questions.
Here are some additional Photo’s from our European vacation