UTMB: CCC magical savory wonderland
Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) has been on my radar for 4 years since my pal Chelsea Blanchard showed me the video, “Curiosity” starring Rory Bosio, saying something along the lines of “this woman is your spirit animal.” If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend watching. I was in awe of the energy and spirit of the race, and knew I just had to experience it someday. In the summer of 2016 I ran the course (Tour du Mont Blanc, which circumnavigates Mont Blanc and passes through France, Italy and Switzerland) with two of my medical school classmates Beth and Audrey, after that (2017) I went back and ran the Mont Blanc 10km. In 2018, I ran the reverse Haute Route (Zermatt to Chamonix) with my boyfriend (now husband) Tyler and our friends Ben and Katie. All these trips in some way were spurred on by my fascination with UTMB, and this led me to run CCC this year. While UTMB circumnavigates Mont Blanc, CCC goes around about half of it. It is a 101 kilometer mountain race with 20,000 feet of climbing. It starts in Courmayeur, Italy, winds through Switzerland and ends in Chamonix, France. The UTMB races draw many of the best trail athletes in the world, and has been called the “Super Bowl” of trail running.
If I was going to make a special trip to France for a race I knew I’d want to be as well prepared as possible, and fortunately I have a great coach in my husband Tyler. Hey, even coaches need coaches! We decided to incorporate a mix of speed and endurance. In general, this involved some kind of speed work during the week and a long, playful days filled with climbing on the weekend. Luckily, I have a great group of speedy road runner friends in Portland who are always up for some suffering. As for the long runs, we travelled to the Wallowas, Squamish, the North Cascades, Mt. Rainier, Tillamook Forest and Mt. Hood. These weekend runs honestly felt more like playing than training, and that’s how I prefer it. In general, training should be fun, and if it’s not, something needs to change!
I knew I wanted to get to Chamonix with plenty of time to adjust before the race, and my good friend and Nike Trail teammate Keely Henninger found an amazing cabin for the Nike women (Keely and I, plus Sally McRae and Brittany Peterson). Keely is experienced with CCC, having placed 4th in 2017. She took me under her wing and gave me a lot of encouragement in the weeks and days leading into the race. Our place was a bit out of town, which was nice because the atmosphere was positively buzzing downtown. Usually when I sense this excitement I get nervous, which suppresses my appetite. (Suboptimal for preparing for a big mountain race.) Picking up my bib has historically been a stressful ordeal, especially for a big race like this, but I went with my friends (Keely, Sally and Amanda Basham) and had no nerves! The entire race experience was made a million times better by getting to share it with these amazing women.
Keely, Brittany and I went to the press conference the evening before the race. We felt a little out of place but had a good “why not?” attitude. A cameraman asked us for an interview and we took turns, Keely going first. I was second and just as they handed me the microphone Xavier Thevenard walked in. They didn’t hesitate to take the microphone out of my hand and shoo me off to the side. Usually something like this would really hurt my feelings, and I was bothered by it but didn’t take it personally. I’d heard about previous demonstrations of sexism at the event, like only recognizing the top 10 men and only 5 women at UTMB (this has since been changed, largely thanks to Bosio’s refusal to return to the race unless they changed it, or so I’ve heard). Unfortunately, things like this happen all the time, and I think it’s our job to call it out. After Xavier passed through, the cameraman guiltily waved me over, I hopped up, grabbed the microphone and said, “sorry I’m not a handsome man.”
The morning of the race, we woke up a little before 6 AM, I had a bit of coffee to get my bowels moving (it worked!), ate a hard-boiled egg and some roasted sweet potatoes. We drove over to Courmayeur and hung out at a café near the starting line. People slowly started accumulating, nervously pacing in their spandex and meticulously packed knapsacks. Surely the nerves should have come by now, but all I felt was excitement. Earlier in the year I ran the Trail du Ventoux in Bedoin, France and my approach there was to think of the race as a long, hard run with great support, including snacks along the way! I had a similar mindset here, except this time I was setting off with some great friends. I couldn’t help but be anything but happy to be there. Standing on the start line with 5 minutes to go I ate a Spring Energy gel “Hill Aid,” it seemed appropriate as we were embarking on a 5,000 foot climb.
The countdown to the race coupled with the emotional Jurassic Park/ Harry Potter style theme song was epic. Tre, Due, Uno and we were OFF! Just as expected, people were running FAST, and there was definitely some pushing but we all managed to stay on our feet. We wound through town for a mile or two before heading up the first climb. I settled into a good rhythm and felt relaxed. I didn’t want to go out too hard, so stayed in my spot in the conga line, not attempting to pass anyone unless they were falling behind the person in front of them. I ate two Spring Energy SpeedNut gels in the first hour, 500 calories in total! Up, up, up we went, and before I knew it the sun was on my face. I let out a gleeful, “yeehaw!” to which no one responded, despite the never-ending train of people on either side of me. “Come on, guys! This is amazing!” (I kept that thought to myself.) When I crested the hill and the race officials scanned by bib, I think they said I was in 4th place or 5th place. Surely that can’t be right...I was supposed to be taking it easy! The descent into Rifugio Bertone was a mix of gradual buttery singletrack and technical, somewhat steep rocky terrain, the type where you need to jump from rock to rock. I was surprised at how timid I felt on this terrain, I’m usually more fearless with technical terrain, but I wanted to save my quadriceps and didn’t want to irresponsibly tire my legs this early. After Bertone, the trail flattened out a bit, and it was nice to let things flow more easily. I was clicking off 7:30-9 minute miles and it felt good. A Spanish woman passed me, yelling, “VENGA” as she went. I thought that was sweet. A theme for this race emerged that we were all here to race hard while supporting one another. I already felt a little tightness in my quadriceps, and knew I’d have to keep an eye on it since there was a long way to go. It was fun to arrive at the next aid station, Rifugio Bonatti to the whoops and cheers of some familiar faces. My friends Pat, Jess and Jarrett were all up there. I stopped there to stick my head under the fountain, since it was starting to heat up. I opted for a bladder over small flasks, which meant I didn’t have to stop and refill my bottles as much. We traversed before descending into Arnovauz. Uh oh, my quads were already seizing! This was going to be a long day. I stopped at the aid station down there, grabbed some oranges and poured some more water on my head. The young kid working at the aid station excitedly asked me what I needed, and I shrugged and said, “high five?!” to which he lit up and smacked my outstretched hand.
The next section was the second of 5 climbs, up Col Ferret. Since I was already feeling it in my quadriceps I decided I’d need to back off and not worry about people catching me. I’d rather recover now and try to pick people off at the end than keep pushing and be forced to drop. So, I power hiked and ate. My teammate Brittany passed me and we cheered one another along, a French woman Camille passed me and probably a few others. I wasn’t sure what place I was in but I figured at this point it didn’t matter much. I needed to get to Champex Lac (just over half way), feeling ready to rumble. We crested out on Col Ferret and descended down into Switzerland! I remembered this from my Tour du Mont Blanc in 2016, I just loved seeing the cows with their massive cow bells. Keely warned me about hearing cowbells, thinking we were getting close to an aid station, only to round the corner to a mighty beast munching on some grass. This happened several times throughout the day.
The next 12 miles were essentially all descending, and while normally I think of this as free speed, today it felt labored. Since my quads were already complaining I wasn’t in a great position to just let things flow. As I entered La Fouly, Ailsa MacDonald caught me, and Stephanie Howe was just behind her. I was out of water but wasn’t planning on filling up until Champex Lac, so took out my bladder and put about a liter of water in there. I jockeyed back and forth with some men on the descent into Champex, mostly getting passed by people and doing my best to save my quads. I thought to myself, “how are my quads not ready for this?” We did a lot of practice climbing, but I realized I hadn't practiced descending with speedy purpose or did much eccentric loading to stimulate this type of stress. Just before getting into Champex another woman passed me. “Dang it! Was I going to make it? Was I blowing up?” I neared a road and heard some cheering, it was Keely! What the heck! I figured she’d be passing me any moment. It turned out she developed some major heel blisters early on and was forced to drop at La Fouly. I got into the aid station at Champex Lac and my crew Chris had a whole buffet of snacks laid out. I ate a Snickers, banana and some pickle juice (hoping that would help with the cramps) and swapped out my bladder for a new one all ready to go with Electroride. On the way out they had a gear check, where they inspected the following required gear: cell phone, rain jacket and two headlamps with spare batteries. “C’est bon?” I asked the man. He smiled and said, “Oui!” On my way out I yelled, “A bientot mon Cherie!”
I ran along Champex Lac, and the cool blue water was tempting my crusty body. I saw my friends Keely and Colleen Little (our team Physical Therapist!) standing along the trail! I yelled, “you should crew me!” and Keely said, “I’m planning on it!” The course followed along the road before leading us back into the forest. The forest here was savory (as Brittany perfectly described it), the trail lined with red cap Amanita Muscaria mushrooms, “Super Mario Power Up!” I thought to myself. I felt better climbing and decided to push it. Eventually I caught up with my friends Jeff Colt and Duncan Hoge. They are some very speedy American guys (Jeff wasn’t far behind Tyler at Bandera and I knew Duncan from Portland) and I didn’t expect to see them until the finish line. Jeff and I passed Emelie Forsberg at Col de La Forclaz, where she’d stopped to chat with Kilian and see her baby. For those of you who don’t know, she had a baby 5 months ago and was toeing the line at one of the most competitive races in the world. What a badass mountain momma (literally). On this descent, I decided that I really didn’t want my quads to be blown, so I made it up in my head that they weren’t. (Your mind is powerful.) Jeff and I ended up running into Trient together, where he decided to pull out due to a hurting foot. Duncan was completely spent and also had to pull the plug at Trient. I was bummed for my friends but grateful to share some miles with them.
Video 1: Doing my best Burke Lohr thumbs up!
Video 2: Hug #4 with Keely before she kicked me out of the aid station at Trient.
Seeing Keely at Trient I was literally never more excited to see someone (Video 2). I must have hugged her 4 times. At this point I was switching more to liquid calories (Maurten, powerade) and she had those all ready to go. We were having so much fun there she had to kick me out and send me on my way! As I began the climb out of Trient I caught up with
my teammate Brittany, she’d run out of gels at La Fouly and wasn’t able to catch back up with nutrition. I was bummed to see her this far back as I thought she was in 3rd! We climbed together for a bit and encouraged one another before I pressed on. This climb was steep, but the descent started out with gradual singletrack. I was feeling happy and delighting in the distant rumbles of thunder. As I rounded a corner I saw a bunch of wooly white spots dotting the grassy hillside. SHEEP! And guess what else? A sweet black sheep dog standing guard. My heart swelled. My quads were still cramping but I didn’t care, I was having fun, doing everything I could to mitigate the damage and couldn’t ask for much else. At this point I was “pole vaulting” with my hiking sticks to give myself a blissful moment of weightlessness while still moving forward. I began thinking about what I’d want at the aid station and landed on a “Big Boy Maurten” (Maurten 320) and Powerade. I was still eating gels, but liquid calories sounded more appealing.
Video 3: "Charging" into the last climb. Video credit: Anne Marie Madden (my (s)hero).
I had what I thought was an efficient stop (2 minutes). I later learned that by the time I left the aid I was 13 minutes behind Ailsa, the 6th place woman. Paul, Brittany’s coach said that I had to pretend that the finish was at the top of the next climb and then hold on for dear life after that. I set off from Vallorcine charging up the gradual climb along the creek. We popped out on the road near Col de La Forclaz and Chris, Pat and Anne Marie Madden were all up there cheering! (Anne Marie is a badass ultrarunner and Cardiothoracic Anthesiologist - needless to say, a huge fountain of inspiration for me.) They sent me on my way and I began picking my way through the rocky climb. Two giggling men were hiking down and I quickly learned what they were giggling about. There was an Ibex on the trail! It stomped its foot as if to say, “YOU SHALL NOT PASS!” I said, “hello friend! Excuse me!” It ran up the trail and we played this game a few more times before it sauntered off the trail. The sun was setting and wrapped the snowy mountain in a warm pink hug. There were still distant rumbles of thunder and the occasional flash of lighting. It was pure magic. After the sun was gone I turned on my headlamp. People were passing me! But I was running so fast, or so I felt! I had to pee, that was a good sign that I had some semblance of glomerular filtration. But there were headlamps closing in! I did what any respectable runner would do and peed my pants.
Someone passed me and I couldn’t tell whether it was a man or woman, and I figured it would be rude to ask, so I just tried to push and keep up, struggling to navigate through the technical terrain in the dark. When the climb flattened out and we began the traverse over to La Flegere (the last aid station) I decided that I should try to run really fast in case whoever was ahead of me was slowing down. As soon as I began my charge, I tripped super(wo)maned hard on the trail. Ouch. My hand and knee were scraped up, but I remember Keely saying she fell here two years ago. “It’s ok! I’m ok! People just fall sometimes,” were my positive affirmations. I squeezed some of my water onto my hand to try and clean it a bit and was on my way. Thank goodness for kaolin! (a component in clay that stimulates fibrin formation by activating clotting factor XII). I passed through La Flegere without stopping, hiding my battle wounds so they wouldn’t make me stop. 8 km to Chamonix! Finishers hope was kicking in! More technical descending that felt like it lasted forever, eventually the trail widened and I saw a street light! The town! “Go Rachel!” It was my pal Timmy Bedford from Portland! He’d just finished the Haute Route. What a treat to see him. I pushed all the way to the finish with happy tears in my eyeballs and a big ol’ smile on my face. All my Nike teammates were there at the finish and I was greeted with hugs and more smiles. I ended up in 7th place, just over 2 minutes behind 6th. What a journey.
Video 4: Getting a momentous French stitch in the first aid tent. "It's a bad moment." She said, but it wasn't so bad. In fact, I didn't feel a thing!
I decided to go to the first aid tent to get my wounds cleaned up, not because I needed medical attention but because I wanted to go get a cheeseburger with my friends and felt I should clean out the wounds. They cleaned me up and put on some “rouge antiseptique.” The woman said that the knee cut was deep and would need a stitch! A French stitch! After getting patched up we ate cheeseburgers.
We spent the first half of Saturday sleeping in before heading out to cheer on our friends running UTMB. We cheered on Ryan Ghelfi (Trails and Tarmac!) as he rolled into Vallorcine and Sally McRae (who I've come to think of as the Mother Theresa of trail running) as she smiled and fist pumped on her approach to the final climb. It was amazing to see the crew of humans who came out to cheer on Sally. The race directors from the Cinque Terre Trail Race, a whole slew of past and present Nike athletes including Zach Miller and Amanda Basham, Alex Varner, Jarrett Tong, Billy Yang (!), her coach Mario Fraioli, Jessica Wilson (who we'd met at a Nike shoe tester event a few days earlier) just to name a few. This speaks volumes to the impact that Sally has on so many people, and it's fitting that we'd all meet at 1AM in the middle of nowhere just to see her for a moment and provide her with a boost of encouragement. In my mind, this community is what makes trail running so special. It really doesn't matter who you are or how fast you are.
Before the race, Tyler told me that if I ran with joy, I couldn’t lose. He said it didn’t matter where I placed. And you know what? He’s right. I had so much fun. I think this must have been the second best day of my life behind my wedding day. We choose to do this because we love it, and it’s truly a privilege to spend an entire day frolicking in the mountains with people from all over the world.
Areas for improvement:
1. Bulk up my quads in preparation for long descents (run harder on descents in training, eccentric loading in the weight room)
2. Practice running on technical terrain in the dark, tired.
3. Bring more soft flask bottles with long nozzles so I can swap them out at aid stations rather than having to replace the nozzle on a new bottle.
4. Bring more electrolyte tablets. There are mixed reviews on whether this is a good strategy, but I took probably 6 tablets throughout the race along with about 5 litres of electroride and my fingers didn't get puffy, so I'd call that a success.
5. Consider getting a mini phone. Mostly to cut down on weight, but also because they’re cute.
6. Devise a simple solution for storing poles while I’m not using them. I collapsed them and held them in my hands but it would have been nice to have a spot to stash them to facilitate eating.
7. Find some shorts with bigger pockets.