“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity”
― John Muir, Our National Parks (1901)
It’s amazing to read this quote from over 100 years ago. I can’t imagine what John Muir would think of the world today as I often struggle to make sense of all that is going on. Personally I crave the awesome and transforming power that going high up into the mountains can have on my well-being. Running above the clouds and surrounded by the Lords amazing creation can bring a new perspective to all areas of my life. Running 100 miles in this setting serves as an opportunity for me to hit reset, refocus, and prepare for whatever lies ahead.
The following is my race report (or mini-novel) from the Ultra Trail Du Mont Blanc (UTMB) race. It is an amazing race that goes around one of the most beautiful mountains in Europe and impacted me in ways that I yearned for and in other ways that were unexpected. It was my second time there and I was quick to write down as much as I could after the race. The good and bad news is that I had lots of notes. As a result, it is rather long and so I decided to break this into 3 parts . The first part is a reflection of my experience in 2016, my journey leading up to the race in 2019, and some personal reflections from this year’s race. That is followed by a more detailed review of my race by aid station that may benefit someone looking to run this race or for those interested in hearing every detail that I could remember. The last section is the shortest and contains some general thoughts about the race, what I would have done differently, and plans moving forward.
PART I: 2016 and general reflections from 2019
Reflection from 2016 – Would I do it again?
After finishing UTMB in 2016, I knew without a doubt that I wanted to get back to Chamonix to line up for this awesome race. Three years ago I had spent two weeks before the race with my family visiting London and traveling north from Rome through multiple cities in Italy. It was a trip of a lifetime and was better than I could have hoped for. The main purpose of the trip was to have an amazing vacation with my family and fulfill a lifetime dream of visiting Italy. The fact that UTMB happened towards the end of the trip was the icing on the cake, due in large part to the timing of summer vacation and the start of the school year. (Click here to read full 2016 race report)
While traveling, I ate and drank everything I wanted without any guilt or stress of deviating from my more disciplined plan that I normally follow in the weeks leading up to a big race. In addition to the food, this bingeing included tons of cappuccinos and espressos, a major departure from my “no caffeine” rule for 3-4 weeks leading up to 100-Mile races. I mention that because the biggest factor that would play a significant role during the race was lack of sleep leading up to the big event. I added insult to injury by leaving on Thursday, the day before the race, from our hotel in Tuscany, Italy for Chamonix, France. After six long hours of driving, I was exhausted and barely had time to get my gear checked and pick up my race bib.
By the time I lined up for the race at 6:00pm on Friday, I was already exhausted. The net result was I had a memorable race with lots of sleeping and finished with less than an hour before the 46-hour time limit. It was one of my favorite race experiences and a great journey in retrospect. However, I immediately knew that I’d love to come back to sleep less and run more with the goal of improving my time.
A Fresh Start – Training for 2019
I couldn’t have asked for a better training cycle leading up to the 2019 race. I had initially planned for this to be my second big race of the year. The main race that I was scared and excited to run was supposed to take place in July, the Hardrock 100 in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. I was #3 on the Hardrock waitlist (many would say an almost a guaranteed entry) but it was postponed in June until 2020 due to snow and avalanches that made parts of the course unsafe.
My training for both races focused on lots of climbing and by July I had climbed more vertical feet in the first 6 months of the year than I had in any previous 12 month period since I began running 14 years ago. My legs felt strong and I had some epic training runs that included a 50K race at altitude in Colorado during May, a solo 40-Mile run around Mt. Hood in June, and the most amazing 5-days running on the Leadville and Hardrock courses with my good friends Jodi and Tom in July.
Based on school schedules and other factors, I would be going to UTMB alone despite trying to get friends to help crew me during the race. I convinced myself that traveling alone was a good plan based on the limited places they could see me on the course. I thought that it would give me lots of time alone to reflect, focus, and rest before the race. I arrived in Chamonix on Wednesday with plenty of time to get everything in order. On Friday I showed up to the starting line feeling good, strong, and ready to run faster than my previous 45 hour finish.
Happy Birthday and why UTMB is unlike any other
I am not some who cares about my birthday and after receiving the best birthday present 14 years ago, my daughter Olivia, August 30th became less about me. While I would be away from my family and Olivia on “our” birthday, it was exciting to line up for UTMB on this day.
After 2016, I realized that this race has the most amazing capabilities of not only tracking runners, but also showing video of runners arriving at many of the aid stations. The ability to track runners this way is unlike any other race (ultra or non-ultra) in the world that I’m aware of. As a result, there were many friends and family members that would be following me .
Since I knew many people would be tracking me, I decided to live stream the beginning of the race on Facebook (found at the bottom of this post). Unfortunately the footage is challenging to watch given it’s poor quality. However it does give a good perspective of the amazing crowds one encounters at the start and through the many small towns in France, Italy, and Switzerland. When I got home, I was amazed at how many people watched this and followed me over my nearly two day journey around Mont Blanc
The tracking capabilities are just one of the many unique and amazing aspects of this race. At UTMB you are not only lining up and competing on the same course as the best in the world, but it has one of the largest and most diverse groups of runners for a 100 mile race. UTMB has a field of over 2,300 runners from over 100 countries. It feels like the Olympics of ultra-running with the biggest exception that most of the field are not world class athletes.
It was awesome to see so many people from all over the world joined together by a common love, similar goals, and a desire to challenge themselves on this difficult course. It is times like this that give me hope in a world that often seems divided. However this diversity does come with some challenges, primarily language barriers. Unlike many smaller races in the US, there is little talk between runners at the start and honestly throughout most of the race. If you choose to continue to read below, difficult challenges, especially later in the race, can help facilitate discussion between runners. I experienced this both times late in the race where I connected with many runners from the UK, Canada, Poland, and Italy to name a few counties. Overall it was great to meet some new friends, discuss races around the world, and encourage one another when one of us was struggling.
One of the Biggest Training Lessons in 2019
Despite the fact that I started UTMB sleep deprived in 2016, it wasn’t the first nor last time I have had that issue during a race. In fact, it has probably been one of the most consistent challenges for me in 100 mile races. I wrote about it previously and believe nutrition is often a major factor, but it is definitely exacerbated when sleep deprived.
In the last 18 months, I have been involved with a program at work called Corporate Athlete that primarily focuses on four areas of our lives that include physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual dimensions. Most people who go through the course will initially focus on one area to improve. I began focusing on sleep at the beginning of 2019.
I believe focusing on this in the months leading up to the race, versus days or the week before, allowed me to run through two nights without any issues. I was up for over 50 hours without ever feeling truly exhausted. Obviously I’ll need more than one race to see the impact over the long term but believe its benefits will be felt on my body beyond running ultras.
Here’s video of me going through each aid station
Part II: The Race – Aid station by aid station
The Start: Time for Business
As soon as I stopped livestreaming a few minutes after the start, I focused on the challenge ahead. The first 8km/5M before the first aid station is relatively flat and I was averaging 8-9 min/miles. It was fast but I felt great and knew things would slow down as we started climbing. I had initially planned to wait to open up my Black Diamond Hiking Z-Poles until the second climb but pulled them out early with everyone else on the first ascent. I felt great and strong on the climb and passed many more people than passed me… a big difference from 2016!
Going into St. Gervais (2nd aid station @21kilometers/13Miles) was more amazing than I remembered. The crowds lining the street were awesome and the food at the aid station was just what I remembered with bread, sausage, and all the aid station food described in the race materials. This menu is different from what I see at races in the US but I had no issues with this selection in 2016 and experimented with this type of food over the summer. I was in and out of this aid station fairly quickly but knew I needed to take in lots of calories before climbing nearly 5,000’ over the next 13 Miles, the longest nighttime climb of the race to Croix du Bonhomme (~2500m/8200’).
Up Into the Sky
I arrived at Les Contamines (31km/19M) feeling so much better than in 2016. My previous arrival was a blur as I wanted to just go to bed. It felt good to be so awake and strong on the climbs. It seemed like many runners had their crews at this aid station and which made it rather crowded. Once again, I tried to get more calories in for the climb that would only get steeper and the temperature would continue to drop.
This climb is relentless but I had looked forward to it in a crazy way. As you look up the mountain, it appears the headlamps ascend into the stars. Then as you climb, the long line of headlamps snaking up behind you is reassuring that you’re making progress. However, I spent most of the time primarily focused on the next few steps ahead and only took quick glances up at the amazing theater of stars lighting up the night sky above.
I looked back at some point and saw an American flag on the bib behind me. As I began to speak to the runner, I immediately realized it was my friend Ed Wang who I have run past ultras with and who I have stayed connected with over the years via social media. Ed and I tried to connect before the race but were unsuccessful. I was shocked that we were now climbing together despite being in a field of over 2300 runners. I continued to feel stronger on the climb and eventually left him. Ed shared in his post-race report that he was struggling at this point but as many of us know in ultras, he overcame that rough spot and ended up finishing over an hour before me.
Check Point and DFL 2016
We passed La Balme (39km/24M) and then continued on up and over the climb to Les Chapieux (50km/31M). This aid station had everything that included bathrooms with running water as well as a kit check. I thought I’d have to take everything out (UTMB has a strict list of items that must be in our packs or be disqualified. It is most often referred to as a “kit”) at the kit check but they only required me to show my emergency blanket, working phone, and rain jacket.
Another climb followed this aid station and I was feeling good mentally. I remembered it was less than a mile after leaving this aid station in 2016 that I fell asleep on the side of the trail for so long that the sweepers (people who leave the aid stations after the cut-off time and walk to the next station to make sure no one is left behind) woke me up and told me I needed to move or quit since I was DFL (Dead Freaking* Last). This year I didn’t feel sleepy at all but did begin to struggle a little with my stomach.
I finally made it over Col de la Seigne where you cross from France into Italy. The views from here to the next aid station Lac Combal (67Km/42M) were amazing as the sun was beginning to rise. To get to this aid station you need to descend a very technical section that I remembered from 2016. I was unfortunately chasing cut-offs three years ago and made it by only two minutes. While I had plenty of time this year, I enjoyed the rocky descent that I’m used to living in Pennsylvania and picked up the pace. Quickly descending this downhill felt good for a while but ultimately ruined my stomach.
I arrived at the aid station not feeling great and felt the food selection here lacked the same selection as previous stops. It was the first aid station where I realized the new requirement that we needed to carry our own bowls, cups, and utensils really slowed me down. After some soup, I wanted some hot coffee but then had to rinse out my bowl. All that up and down was frustrating given I was feeling like crap. Here was an obvious difference from aid stations in the USA where there are fewer runners and there are volunteers willing to help you get whatever you need. However, at UTMB you are truly on your own. Despite some GI issues and wasting more time than expected, I was feeling like a sub-35 hour finish was still possible
The Half Way Point and Coumayeur
I was looking forward to getting to Coumayeur (80km/50M) and my only drop bag to change my shirt, replenish my kit, and get some good food. The descent into this beautiful Italian town is very long with a ton of switch backs. Once again I took advantage of gravity and probably went down too hard which resulted in more walking as I headed in to grab my drop bag.
I wasted a ton of time here for the same reasons I mentioned at Lac Combal. While this is an aid station where you can have support, I had to do everything on my own and made multiple trips for food, drinks, and getting my act together. After wasting nearly 45 minutes, I eventually left and made my way through the town where there are several natural fountains to either refill your water bottles or just splash some cool water on your head. This was helpful as the temperature really felt like it was beginning to rise with the late morning sun.
It’s just under 5km/3M to Refuge Bertone (85km/53M) but it feels much longer as the climb to this aid station is short but steep. It continued to get warmer as I climbed and decided to take some time when I got to the top. When I arrived at Refuge Bertone, I soaked one of my buffs (a high tech bandana) in cold water, drank some cold water and laid down on a bench in the shade for 5 minutes. I wasn’t tired but was overheating. Fortunately the shade was refreshing due to the low humidity and I quickly felt better. There is short climb out of here and I started the climb to leave before realizing that I had to go back down to the aid station to get my poles. For those who saw me leaving on the aid station video and asked why I was shaking my head (4:10 in aid station video), it was because I hadn’t realized the camera didn’t show me leaving the first time with no poles only to have to return a second time.
While there are no major climbs to the next aid station, there are plenty of short ones, including the final climb into Refuge Bonatti (92km/57M). I tried to spend an extra 5 minutes getting cool here as well as I remembered the next section was predominantly downhill and I would get warm once again when I picked up the pace going downhill with the sun overhead.
Eventually I began the decent to Arnouvaz (97km/60M) that was runnable. Unfortunately I paid the price yet again with my stomach. The good news was I was wide awake but once again took way too much time getting in calories and getting my stomach settled.
I thought I had remembered the climb out of Arnouvas to Grand Col Ferret (102km/63M) which is where we cross the Italian boarder into Switzerland. It was by far the most brutal climb of the race for me due to the length, grade, and especially the heat. There were no clouds in the sky and the sun blazed down on us the entire time. Despite feeling strong on the climb, I made a mistake in not filling the extra water bottle I had in my kit and ended up struggling at the top due to thirst. They weren’t offering water at the top but assured us it was 5k down to the next aid station with water at Le Peule (112km/70M). They were correct and the 3 miles of all downhill felt SOOO good after the long steep climb. I was careful not to hit the descent too hard this time to keep my stomach in good shape. While I descended, I heard thunder but didn’t see any clouds at that point.
Fortunately here was a water fountain at Le Peule for me to fill my water bottles as promised. There is also a small restaurant or store and I felt like I needed something other than water to drink. I went in to see if I could buy a coke or something similar. Another Spanish runner had the same idea ahead of me in a line of non-runners. He drank a little and after seeing me waiting in line, offered the rest to me so we could keep moving. It was a cool moment for me yet again given we didn’t really speak given the language barrier but understood one another given our circumstances. We soon left there together with the nice sunny skies behind.
Conditions Change So Quickly In the Mountains
It started as a light drizzle when I put on my smaller rain jacket. Unfortunately is was so small that I had to wear my kit on the outside where it was exposed. Soon the rain became heavier and the temperature was dropping. The rain then turned to pea sized hail that was accompanied by thunder. While I was glad not to see any lighting in retrospect, at that moment and at an elevation of nearly 2000m/6600’, all I knew was that I wanted to get down given the possibility of lighting. I was trying to descend on single track trail that was beginning to fill with the hail. Running on the sides of the trail seemed to be a good idea at first to avoid slipping on the hail. Soon the torrential down pour of hail/rain created streams running down the mountain and everything was slippery. As I tried to turn with the trail along a switchback, I slipped and became airborne before smacking the ground with my hip and back. Now I was cold, wet, muddy and in a little bit of pain. Fortunately after a quick assessment that nothing was broken or bleeding, I continued on but at a much slower pace.
Prior to this point I realized I had made a major strategic error in not using my larger and heavier rain coat earlier and which can fit over my kit. However this was also soaking through by the time I fell and everything was cold and wet. I then used a cheap poncho that is not required by UTMB but was a life saver for me as it helped me to stay relatively warm until I could reach the aid station and regroup.
Time to Regroup and Finding Misery Loves Company
I arrived at La Fouly (111km/69M) feeling miserable and stuck my tongue out at the camera to let everyone at home know I was struggling but trying to make the most of it (4:50 of aid station video)! I was cold and wet to the bone, still feeling my fall, and arrived to a packed aid station with very little room to regroup. There were some asking whether they would cancel the race given that there was a massive mudslide that closed a road with boulders that had fallen down the size of cars . It was hectic in the aid station and despite these rumors, the storm was isolated to a small portion of the course that would became apparent to those of us who continued on. I probably wasted the most time here at this aid station. While I never considered quitting, I was concerned about making through the next 60km/37M if this weather didn’t let up. After stripping off my wet clothes, getting dry, making multiple trips to the tables for food and warm soup, and hoping the weather would let up, I finally got moving after nearly an hour.
Until now I would occasionally have brief conversations with other runners but still felt the language barriers prevented the type of dialogue many US runners are used to. However, after the misery most of us had endured during the previous 2-3 miles before leaving this aid station, the conversations were longer and more robust among groups of runner’s. I enjoyed making new connections with others, recapping the race until now, and sharing stories from past races where we endured horrible conditions.
Initially we took it easy leaving La Fouly on a dirt/gravel road before we hit some single-track trails again. It’s mostly downhill and some of us began to pick it up again as the second night began to close in around us on our way to Champex-Lac (126km/78M)
Getting to Champex-Lac is interesting from La Fouly. After spending some time on trails, you run through little streets that were deserted and I wondered if I was lost at times. A couple of runners did make a wrong turn and fortunately a bunch of us were able to get their attention and get them back on track. Over all this section of road was strangely quiet given the crowds cheering us on through many other towns.
After what felt like descending several miles on roads, we finally began to climb on single-track trails again. Soon we had a huge conga line going up a series of steep switch backs that felt like they would never end. It was challenging and despite feeling good and wanting to push harder at times, I was smart and hung back with the large group. I had zero recollection of this section from 2016 and believe it was probably because I was completely out of it last time. We finally came to the top and after a short run on the road, arrived at the aid station.
Under 50K to Go!
The good news about arriving at Champex-Lac is that I had worked up an appetite after all the climbing. There were a lot of people who looked like they were in bad shape but I ignored the carnage and focused on what I needed to do. Many families and friends of runners were there to help. Unfortunately getting up and down to take care of my food, drink, and other needs made me waste nearly another 45 minutes here. In 2016, I took a 15-minute nap here (among a dozen other places) and I am fairly certain that these new eco-friendly changes resulted in me spending almost as much time this year without a nap.
The talk among runners continued as we left the aid station and walked down the long road before eventually hitting more single-track. I was still feeling good and once again was enjoying the comaraderie on my way to Trient (138km/88M).
It felt like forever to reach Trient and despite some downhill pounding, I was much quicker at this aid station than many previous ones. The initial section leaving here was downhill but quickly turned into a brutal climb. Its straight up and I personally can’t imagine climbing out of Trient at that point in the race without poles.
I was feeling strong on this climb and focused on trying to take short quick steps while moving quickly. I was passing many people but trying to be smart about not overdoing it. At one point I noticed the runner in front of me had an American flag on the back of his pack. I asked Craig where he was from and he told me Auburn, CA. Of course I had to ask him if he’d run Western States which he had and it wasn’t until after the race I looked at the results and saw Craig’s full name – Craig Thornley, the Race Director for Western States… so embarrassing!
The Home Stretch
I felt like I remembered running into Vallorcine (153km/95M) in 2016 on some very runnable trails. However the route must have changed and I was getting frustrated. As the sun rose for the second time during the race, I went downhill to quick yet again and beat up my stomach. I had arrived with Peter, another runner from Poland. Peter and I spent some time together in the aid station trying to help and encourage one another to get moving. We left together but I told him to go ahead as I was going to have to walk given my stomach.
Within a mile something clicked and I began running and feeling good. I knew what was ahead from a climbing perspective and wanted to get this over with. One thing I never forgot about this last section was how much it reminded me of Mt Tammany and the boulder fields back home where I love to train in Pennsylvania. During my training runs this summer I thought about this section and now here I was, getting ready to finish UTMB feeling better and passing people one at a time. I felt strong, in my element, and while not necessarily competing with anyone, began to target people ahead of me for motivation and to have some fun. I passed over 70 people from the time I left La Flégère, the final aid station (160km/99M) in rough shape.
As we entered the aid station, they welcomed us by our names. I then learned the name of One guy who didn’t want me to pass him as we approached La Flégère. Oliver was from Italy and looked like Zach Miller from behind. He was quick and wasn’t about to let me pass him so we began running together, flying past people on the long runnable descent into Chamonix. Some guys tried to pick it up but we were crushing it together. There were some very small water crossings that we would see people try to go around. I was thinking that I had less than 5 miles and wet feet were the last thing I was worried about and so I crashed through the water. Eventually Oliver had enough and I continued on to the most amazing finish line in Chamonix (171km/106M). I felt great knowing how close I was to finish ran to the finish and the amazing crowds.
Part III: The Finish, Thank You, What I’d Do differently, and What’s Next
The Finish and Days that Followed
In 2016 I had my family there with me at the finish and my youngest daughter ran with me for the last section across the finish line. Between the UTMB crowds, iconic finishing arch, and having my family there, it was the most amazing 100 mile finish for me. Each time I cross the finish line of a 100 mile there is an awesome feeling that I can’t completely described.
As I headed toward that finish line in 40:46, I had my phone out to try and capture the moment. I was so happy despite knowing I’d be over 40 hours. It was another wonderful experience and as I walked away from the finish line area, going through the throngs of families and friends celebrating with or waiting for their loved ones, I felt a little disappointed. It probably was more of a mix of emotions that I find to be normal after this type of race. Part of it was being alone but it was much more than that. The sense of accomplishment is accompanied with the fact that this particular journey has come to end. I loved the time in the mountains to focus on absolutely nothing else but the next step, the time to pray and be grateful for all I have, and forgetting about all the distractions in life. It had come to an end but I was happy to finish, achieve my goal, and thought I’d have no desire to run UTMB again.
After the race, I took some time and spent a couple of days in Lake Como, Italy. It was beautiful and being alone allowed me to sleep and eat as I pleased before heading back home.
So Grateful- Thank you
I try to never take for granted all the blessings in my life and be able to do everything I do. My entire family is amazing for being so supportive and Alison puts up with so much as I run all around our town, country, and in this case, the world. My sister is my biggest fan on social media and I appreciate everyone who expressed their love and support via post, text, and calls. I cannot begin to tell you how much those communications from everyone meant after the race and the mix of emotions that followed.
There are so many friends who have supported me and helped me cross this finish line. I must always thank Bobby “GOAT” who got me into racing these crazy distances, introduced me to UTMB, and being much more than a friend over the years. There as so many who have helped an encouraged me to get to this point from my DCR friends, Doylestown 8@8 crew, and many others I feel bad not mentioning specifically. However I had my best training runs and logged hundreds of miles this year with Jodi and Tom who are incredible training partners and wonderful friends.
What Would I Have Done Differently the Same?
Much of what I’m about to share can be found or inferred from much of what I’ve written. However, the top 5 things I would do again or differently, include:
- “Vert” – I definitely believe focusing more on vertical climbing (feet climbed) versus pure mileage during training made me much stronger on the climbs.
- Cheap but effective – I’m so glad I packed two Poncho’s! Rain jackets are great but in cold rain on a slippery mountain where you can’t go fast, nothing beats a plastic poncho.
- Sleep Sleep Sleep – While I tried to sleep a little more in the days leading up to the race, I believe a deficit can’t be overcome by a few nights of extra sleep but must be done longer term.
- Poles – I know some runners hate the idea of poles for a variety of reasons. Personally I am a BIG fan and wouldn’t even consider lining up for Hardrock next year without them. However, I agree that there are many people who don’t know how to use them and are actually dangerous as they incorrectly use them… keep your distance from these folks!
- Pre/Post Travel Plans – It was nice having a little buffer before and after the race. It makes recovery SO MUCH harder if you don’t give your body time to rest before travel back home.
- Crew – I really wish I had someone to help me at the key aid stations. This would be a huge help given that you now need to bring your own utensils among many other benefits. I like racing solo but with a race like UTMB and others, there is a clear benefit of having people there to help
- Cross Training –I would have done more core work and cross training. I definitely neglected this and felt it in my back as well as in my arms from using poles throughout the race.
- Weight – This is always on my list but I was able to correlate my marathon times with my weight. While the correlation isn’t as strong, carrying an extra +10 pounds over 100 miles surely didn’t help
- New Jacket – Fortunately I had a poncho and while my Salomon jacket is awesome for light rain, neither that nor my Ultimate Direction jacket was great in torrential downpours. Maybe it’s time to splurge $$$ before HRH
- Race More – Similar to cross training I really feel like I should have raced more than once in 2019. There is a training benefit that racing has and which is hard to duplicate. Moving forward I need to make the time to race more if I can find the time.
What’s Next? Hardrock and UTMB 2022
There is no doubt that my focus will be on my next big 100 mile race, the Hardrock 100. The race is scheduled for July 2020 and has over 66,000’ of elevation change, is run at an average elevation of 11’000, and you traverse eight 13,000’ mountains and one 14,000’ climb over Handies Peak. It is one of the hardest 100 mile races in the world including UTMB.
However, it wasn’t long before I began to change my mind about going back to Chamonix for UTMB. If there was any doubt, the video below sealed the deal that I would enter the lottery again. The cool part was if I get rejected two times in the lottery as I had previously, I’d have an automatic entry in 2022. This would mean that I would return on my 50th birthday! While a lot can happen between now and then, dreams, goals and hopes help me get out of bed each and every day to run.
I’m sorry for the small novel but appreciate if you took the time to read this. Thank you again for all your support and please feel free to reach out if you have any questions or suggestions.
I love the music at the start