Home RacesRace Report UTMB 2018 – Reflections of a 100 Miler Attempt

UTMB 2018 – Reflections of a 100 Miler Attempt

by Azlan

I began writing this reflection while I was in transit at Dubai Airport. My flight was in another 3 hours. I fear for falling asleep, lest I get stranded. So I decided to start writing my reflections on the journey thus far. Non-runners and outsiders may call this a “trip”, but it really was a  journey of the UTMB 2018.

This was my most anticipated race this year, something I have dreamt of since 2011. Back then, I thought it was physically and financially impossible to do a race like the UTMB.  Especially coming from my background and social status. But life circumstances and opportunities change as one grows older. And this year, I found myself at the start line of one of the toughest editions of the race.

Training

Training for my first 100-miler had a been a long undertaking. After my 2017 CCC finish, I took a 1-week break from running before resuming my usual schedule. In January, after confirming my entry into the UTMB, I spent a further 8-months of 5 day week of training for the big race. Between training, I had taken part in one other overseas race; Translantau 100. But that didn’t go well with a DNF after sustaining an injury and suffering in the heat. That DNF gave me the feeling that all my other races would go sour this year.

UTMB Training with Terence and Allen. Photo by Terence.

Coach Andy Dubois had been instrumental in keeping me in line for race day. In July, I hit a mileage of about 300km; the highest I’ve ever done. I was thankful not to have picked up an injury in the course of training, which was relentless. Though in the last weeks of taper, I picked up a flu bug, which kept me on my toes.

And so after months of slogging it out, it was finally time to head to Chamonix. With my training partner-in-crime, Allen Kerton. We hopped aboard a flight bound to Geneva, through Dubai. It’s nice to have company on a long flight away from home.

With Allen pre-flight.

Back ‘Home’

To return to Chamonix for the 3rd year in a row is a real blessing. It’s funny that a little mountain town so far away from home feels… like home. There’s nothing like being in Chamonix. And I’m sure those who have been there will tell you the same thing. When the mountains greeted me again, it felt oh-so-familiar.

One of the views from a shakeout run the day after flying in.

With a sizable number of runners from Singapore taking part this year, I organized an open house to bring everyone together. I did it under the Live Low Race High banner, in collaboration with Recovery Systems. It wasn’t easy to get everyone together, with some still racing OCC and TDS, and others arriving on different days. Still, a great turn up of friends came to share previous race experiences and strategies.

A meetup for Singaporeans taking part in the UTMB races.

I also had the chance to meet up with the WAA Team again. This time, we had a pretty cool photo shoot.

Photo by WAA.

Weather Woes

The weather forecast on race week initially looked promising; no signs of the hot weather of 2016 and the downpour of 2017. But the weather in the mountains was usually unpredictable. Thus it came as no surprise that on the day of the race, the organizers changed the requirement from the basic kit to the cold weather kit. Some of us to re-adjust our drop bag or crew strategies, while others scrambled to get get the right gear. For the cold weather kit, it was an extra base layer and sunglasses with clear/photochromatic lenses.

That escalated quickly.

UTMB 2018 – Course Profile

Start Line

On race day, it started raining with no clear signs of stopping. The lads and I stayed indoors for most of the time. But later in the afternoon, we put on our rain-jackets and went to deposit our drop bag. We decided to head back to our apartments first to gear up for the race, instead of spending time outside waiting at the start-line in the rain.

The start-line of the UTMB was supposed to be magical. Well, it was… but I couldn’t see much standing at the back. It was chaotic with everyone squeezing about, trying to find the best place to stand while it was raining. It was pretty cool to have a guitar player play along with Vangelis’s Conquest of Paradise. As the start went off, most of us were relieved that the race was underway. It was slippery just getting to the arch, as there were litter and debris everywhere.

UTMB 2018 Start Line with the lads, Ian and Alan. Photo by Ian.

The lack of a starting wave meant thousands of runners all went off at the same time. I went at a conservative pace, as I had no idea what was in store for me. The course was definitely faster at the start without many climbs. I went along with the crowd but tried to speed up in some sections. The weather left runners in a bit of a pickle; to continue running with the rain-jacket, or to stop and take it off. I took off my jacket at some point, as I started to sweat beneath my jacket.

Not sure where this was, but probably en-route to the first climb.

First Night

I spent the first night climbing up to Col du Bonhomme. I don’t recall much of the climb, but I do remember it was muddy and slippery on the descents. Navigating a slippery section of a rocky passage, I fell on my side. Thankfully, no injuries and I continued running whilst being more cautious. I later descended down to Les Chapieux, where I first felt hungry. But I made the mistake of not packing my cup and cutlery in my pack; opting to leave it in my drop bag at 80km. So after having some bananas and a cup of black coffee, I went out again. I had read from this point on was where the race began; the long climb to Col de la Seigne.

Cold with a view

The only thing I remembered of this climb was that it was long. Although not as brutal as Grand Col Ferret, it was punishing in its own way. I was in a daze as my legs were starting to tire. Unsure if I had pushed hard on the earlier climbs or if I was low on calories. Whichever, I knew that as I was climbing, it got cold very quickly. I managed to fight it off, but the more I did, the more energy I was using to stay warm. In desperation, I threw everything down and put on my base layer below my rain jacket. I felt much better and continued to move to the top. Aside from the cold, it was also snowed momentarily. The view was a blessing, to say the least.
After the climb, I descended into Lac Combal, bypassing Pyramides Calcaires after a course re-route. The views were even more spectacular, but I quickly moved off as I had a cut off to chase. A quick refuel at the checkpoint and I was on the way; Courmayeur was close. I had to get there.

The view past Lac Combal

I eventually came out of the trails into Courmayeur, checking in 12:32 pm and leaving at 1:10 pm. That may seem like ample time to rest and recover, but I was disoriented, tired, and didn’t know immediately what to do. I just wanted to sit for a while and rest, but I had so many other things to take care of. Like change socks and shoes, charge the watch, change my clothes, find food etc. I managed to get myself a spot next to Grace, Bee Leng and Terence, who came in before me. After fumbling about, a race official reminded me that I  15 minutes to go before the checkpoint closed. I didn’t have much to eat, aside from a can of Redbull, chips and a weider jelly from my drop bag.

After making sure I had what I need, I hastily left to the next checkpoint. I later realized how important having a crew was at this race.

Reaching Courmayeur after running almost half the course.

Familiarity

The next sections were from Refuge Bertone and Bonatti from the CCC course. While they were familiar to me, entering the start of the trail on the UTMB course was a little different. The climb was gnarly and the heat of the afternoon made it hard for the rest of back-of-pack runners. I bumped into Joseph Sibal there, who told me to dig deep. Frankly, I don’t even know how much oil I had left down the well. After soldiering on, I finally found a familiar trail that took me to Bertone.

Refuge Bonatti was where I eventually bumped into Grace, Terence and Bee Leng. While it was great to see them, I also reminded them that we had to get to Arnouvaz by 6:15 pm; it was close to 5 pm by the time I checked in to Bonatti. With the wind picking up, we as a group hastened our pace, and we eventually found ourselves descending like mad towards Arnouvaz. We checked in at almost 6 pm, with 15 minutes to spare. With the checkpoint also closing up, we were told to wear our rain pants and gloves before climbing Grand Col Ferret. Just before leaving, I was reunited with Allen, who reached not long before me. Together, we moved towards the big climb.

Dashing to Arnouvaz

By then, I was having doubts on whether I should stop. I knew I didn’t want to give up, but my legs were hurting so badly. I struggled on the climbs and I wasn’t sure whether I’d make it to the next checkpoint. With some coaxing from Allen, I dragged myself up Gran Col Ferret, in the fading light and peltering winds. Once we got there, I realized I had made a mistake; the next checkpoint closed at 10:30 pm, not 8:30 pm as I had thought. With that in mind, we got moving.

Mere Seconds

Despite the triumph of getting up to Grand Col Ferret, getting down, was an equal struggle. Together with Allen, Seivland (another Singaporean runner), and a Hidenobu (a Japanese runner), we ran furiously until we reached the road just outside La Fouly. The three of them started running, to see if they could make it. I followed suit but stayed a distance. We had less than 10 minutes till cut off but was still a distance away. By some miracle, we were allowed in and out of the checkpoint, coming in at 10:32 pm. The three of us crashed by the side for a while to regroup, while Seivland disappeared into the night.

After hobbling about, the three of us got onto the trails towards Champex-Lac. I elected to stay in front, as I was more familiar with the route from this point onwards. It helped that the route in my Suunto 9 was also pointing us in the right direction. By this point, I already started to hallucinate, and sometime later, started sleepwalking. Quite dangerous, consider the sections after this had narrow paths next to cliffs.

Later on, we bumped into Terence and Bee Leng, who was resting by the side. We too rested shortly after but were awoken by the sweepers, who told us to keep going else we will be timed out. As we continued on, we picked up another runner, Jose, who was resting but decided to join our pack in moving on. With whatever power we had in our bodies, we moved on, eventually reaching the road in Champex, the Swiss side of Chamonix.

Decision Point

About 10 minutes into the climb, I announced that I wasn’t going to go forward. The next climb was about 4km or so more, and it would take us at least 40 mins to 1 hour; we only had 30 minutes left. There and then, we decided to stop and figure out how to get back. Ironically, it was the sweepers who helped us get transport from the climb to Champex-Lac, where we met Terence and Bee Leng. They were ahead of us but missed the cut-off by 20 minutes. Together, we all waited for the bus which took us back to Chamonix.

Aftermath

After painfully climbing our apartment stairs, we crashed into the chairs. William, who was crewing for us at Champex-Lac, joined us at the house after we told him we were stopping. We had a good chat about the situation, and it was comforting having someone with us post-race. After William left, Allen went to bed, while I painfully got in the shower to wash off the dirt. I stayed up to use the Recovery Systems, have a warm meal, and check if any friends were coming through. Turns out, Ian was less than an hour away, so I trudged along to the finish line to greet him.

Ian finishes the 2018 UTMB

Final Reflections

This was the first race where I thought to myself; it hurts so bad. I don’t remember feeling that much pain when doing CCC even for the second time. But this was a 100-mile race, I guess it’s supposed to hurt way more. Many have commended for running amidst brutal weather conditions this year. But in reality, the weather wasn’t that bad. It was colder for sure, but not pouring, which was the difference this year and last. Despite the weather, there were other factors that led to me being timed out, and not finishing the race. Poor race management and fueling cost me big time.

I don’t feel that disappointed with myself. I gave it 100% till the end, even when the cutoffs were so close. I’m disappointed that make the decisions that kept me longer in the race, and that will continue to haunt me. Even more than my first CCC DNF. I hope with this race report, it will remind myself and tell others at the back-of-the-pack, on how to go about completing this race.

It is a 100-miles, it’s far, and there’s no way to wing about it. That said, anything can happen in a race, even failing to finish. What’s important was understanding the effort done, what went wrong, and to bounce back.

 

One last view of the mountains.

I had fun this year, for sure. One of the best times I’ve had.

With the 2018 UTMB Crew.

Relive ‘UTMB 2018 – DNF at 130km’

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