Friday, 25 September 2015

UTMB 2015; A dream fullfilled

I first came across UTMB in July 2013 when I ran my first ultramarathon. When I registered for the Swissalpine K78, I noticed that the finishers will get 2 UTMB points. After I finished that race, I came back and read about the UTMB, a 168 km race with more than 9000 meters of elevation gain. At that time I had no idea about this distance, but I set myself a long-term goal: to qualify and run the UTMB. Then I ran the Eiger E101 and the Swiss Irontrail T81 in 2014 to collect the remaining points and registered for the UTMB. 
UTMB profile
We arrived in Chamonix on Wednesday. This time I had my sister as my supporter. Shortly after our arrival we went to the expo (Salon Ultra-Trail) I needed to buy a new backpack as my old one was torn off. And just after 4pm we went to collect my bib number.  it was a long queue and it took more than eighty minutes to get to registration point. First of all there was mandatory gear check. They will provide you with a tray that you should put the two most important gear inside: A mobile phone with operating sim card and a jacket with hood made from Gore-tex or similar material. They'd also check the other stuff if it's needed. I saw them weighing the mid-layer to make sure it weighs more than 150 gr. I had a gore-tex jacket but because it didn't have a hood they didn't accept it and they asked me to buy another jacket from the expo, which I did appreciate during the race. after that they'd give you the bib number and attach a timing chip to your backpack and also a red wristband on your wrist.

There were already many runners waiting at the start line at 4:45 on Friday. At 5:30 they asked every runner to make their way to start line for a short briefing.  I still remember some lines "You've been dreaming and training for this race for months, even years. This is your time, This is your day. This race is tougher than tough, but you can do it. When your body faces fatigue, your mind will take you further. And if your mind is about to give up, that's when your heart keeps you going". Then It was time for "Conquest of Paradise" Listening to that song while standing on the start line of the UTMB was something I've been dreaming for two years. 

The race started and I set off. There were too many runners that you couldn't run for the first 200 meters, after that everyone started running. There were people standing on both sides of the road and the whole town was cheering. After a couple of kilometers on asphalt, it was time to hit the trails to Les Houches. It was a fairly wide and flat track. After Les Houches it was the first climb of the course to Le Delevret. And shortly after that It's the descent to Saint-Gervais. And that was steep. probably one of the steepest roads I have ever run. It was a non-technical wide track. Runners were passing each other quite fast and that made this part of the race quite difficult. It was only 15 km into the race and I couldn't understand why they are going so fast. It was later in the course that I realised that.
La Houches
I got to Saint-Gervais after 9pm  (3:06 race time) and after eating some cheese, cracker and soup I started walking up the longest climb of the course. When I arrived to Les Contamines in 4:55 it was overcrowded and it took me more than 10 minutes to grab some water, tea and snacks. It was the first point that we could meet our supporters. So I stayed there for another 15 minutes, That was the time I started shivering, I have experienced hypothermia before during the Eiger Ultra Trail, but it was quite early for that. So after having a couple of  teas, I decided to set off quickly as I realised that I was only 35 minutes ahead of cut-off time. The cut-off times are quite tight in UTMB. According to race stats there were 126 runners dropped out here in Les Contamines most of them I believe missed the cut-off limit. 
Les Contamines
The next aid station was La Balme which was also quite busy. This is probably one of the area that needs improvement in UTMB. Because there are two many runners, the aid stations need more space, specially in the first half of the race. This was where I started losing my appetite and I had difficulty eating. After La Balme the ascent continues to Crolx du bonhomme. I got there in 9:08 and then it took me almost an hour to get to Les Chaplieux at 4:04 am. There was a gear check station just before entering the aid station. They asked me to show my survival blanket, waterproof jacket and mobile phone. After having a bowl of soup, I decided to take a quick nap. There were a few mattresses and blankets provided in another room a few meters away from the aid station. I asked the volunteers to wake me up in 15 minutes. After that quick nap, I had a cup of tea and went on. The climb to Col de la Seigne was one of the hardest parts of the race for me. It was just before dawn and freezing cold. That was where I really appreciate that jacket with hood. It was after 7am that I reached Col de la Seigne and stepped into Italy.

After running all night, it was the first time that I was actually enjoying the view and appreciate the landscape. There was a short downhill part to the next aid station followed by a short ascent. (In UTMB course everything is much more difficult and longer than it appears on race profile). After that little climb there was a technical downhill to Lac Combal where I arrive only 25 minutes before the cut-off time. I climbed to Arrete du Mont-Favre and then started descending through Courmayeur. The route passes a forest path underneath a cable car. It was running pretty fast and absolutely enjoying it. When I got to Courmayeur, I had only 55 minutes to spare. I took my drop bag and went upstairs for some food and changing clothes. My sister joined me there, I hardly ate a plate of pasta and some coke. They asked everyone to leave the station before 1pm. So I took a couple of pancakes and sandwiches that she made for me, refilled my water flasks and rushed outside at 12:59! Courmayeur was definitely my low point during this race. When I got there, I was absolutely pissed off, absolutely tired and still got more than 90 km to go. 

This was the first time in any race that I was escaping from cut-off times. I had some pain in my knees a few weeks prior to race and I decided to run at an easy pace for the first half of the race. This strategy however doesn't really work for a race like UTMB. I could now understand why everyone was running so fast in the first 30km. In UTMB you need to go fast at the start in order to run more easily afterwards. In the first half of the race, there are some single tracks that you have to follow the runners in front of you. It would be dangerous to overtake anyone at those parts. It happened several times that I| had to slow down and walk on a long queue of more than fifty runners. 

It was on the ascent to Refuge Bertone when I could feel the weakness in my quads. It was not a serious cramp, but the weakness. It was probably due to lack of food I was able to take. The 5km-climb to Refuge Bertone took me more than two hours leaving me almost three hours to reach Arnuva the next timing point 12 km away. In race profile this part looks flat, but in reality it is not. There is not a massive uphill though, It is just not as it looks. one kilometer before Refuge Bonatti, I was sitting on the side of trail, absolutely knackered. I did try to eat the pancakes and nutella sandwich I had, but all I could only forced a bite down my throat. The next bite I was about to through up. I looked at my watch and decided that there is only one way to stay on this race, to run as fast as I can to the next checkpoint. I stood up, walked for a few steps and started running to Refuge Bonatti. When I got there it was 5:25 pm. There were a few runners there asking the volunteers what should they do if they miss the cut-off time in Arnuva or if they can drop out of the race here. As I was drinking some coke, I talked to one lady who was also contemplating what to do. I told her I would give it all my best and run as fast as I can. She said "You've got to do it, you have quick feet". And then I started running. I had only 47 minutes to get to Arnuva. If I missed it, the race would be over. This was the turning point for me in UTMB. I ran past many runners on the way to Arnuva. Everyone knew that we have to run very hard to get there in-time. But many had already given up and were walking slowly just to get there and get the bus back to Chamonix. As I passed each runner they would step on the side of the trail and say "Good luck!". Eventually I made it to Arnuva in 24:12. Just three minutes before the cut-off time. I spent that three minutes having a bowl of soup and some cheese. Then we were asked by the staff to leave the station. He advised us to either drop out of the race here or start running NOW. So I walked out of the stations and started climbing towards Grand Col Ferret.

It took me around two hours to get to Grand Col Ferret and enter Switzerland. I was still feeling the weakness in my quads, but after passing Arnuva, I was kind of confident that I can finish the race. This was already the longest and hardest I have ever run so far. And I still had around 70km to go. When I left Arnuva, I was probably the last runner on the course, but I managed to overtake quite few runners on the climb to Grand Col Ferret. It was getting dark while I was descnding to La Fouly and I was running downhill quite fast and passing many runners. I arrived in La Fouly just after 10pm and left the station 10 minutes later. I was only 15 minutes ahead of cut-off time. 111 km done, and I had 59 km and 3300 m of elevation gain to go. 

Then it was 9 km of downhill followed by a never ending climb. It was only 5 km and 600 meters of ascent, but the route passes through a forest and it took me almost three hours to cover 14 km and reach Champex-Lac. It was 1:15 in the morning and my sister was waiting for me outside the tent. She had bought me a pizza hoping that I can have some real food. But again I could only eat was one slice of that. While siting on the bench I used my survival blanket to keep myself warm and avoid hypothermia. At that point, I was desperate to get some sleep, so I went to the next tent, took of my shoes and lied down on a mattress. I hardly slept for 15 minutes. Had some tea, changed some clothes and left the station. 

It was not long after Champex-Lac that I found myself sleeping while I was walking downhill. As there were not many runners behind me, I had a decision to make. I would either stick with the other runners and continue walking and sleeping and risking twisting an ankle or falling down or I would sleep for a few minutes and navigate the course alone which wouldn't be easy considering the fatigue and lack of sleep. Fortunately I chose the latter. I found a spot on the side of the trail, slept on the ground and set my alarm for 8 minutes later. After 5 minutes I was awake and ready to go. And then I found that I was not the last one and there were also quite few runners sleeping on the trail. Then It was one of the most technical parts of the course, the climb to La Giete is quite steep and requires to climb on rocks. Shortly after leaving La Giete it started to get bright. I ran towards Trient and got to the station at 7 am . It was the last station that I'd see my supporter. She brought me a nutella sandwich and for the first time since last 30 hours, I could actually eat that. I had a tea, refilled my flasks and moved on. Two more hillls and 29 km to go.

The ascent to Catogne was very tough. Although it was neither technical nor really steep, I was feeling really tired and it was there that not sleeping properly for the last forty hours led to hallucination. On that climb I saw strange looking stones on the side of trail as well as on the path. Sometimes people name some rocks to something that resembles it (ie, bear, eagle, ...) But I could see all the details as if there was a bear sitting on the path. I even enjoyed some imaginary art works along the route. After I reached Catogne I started running downhill to Vallorcine. It was on the final two km of that descent that the halluciation got worse. I'd had experienced halluciation before but it has never worried me. but then while I was running down the trail towards Vallorcine, I suddenly thought that this isn't right. I thought I've already been in that station and I could even picture some details of the tent, the volunteers and the food there. I knew that something is not right, but the picture was so clear and surreal, I couldn't easily ignore it. Then I got alert for some seconds and asked my hallucinated part if he knows the time I was there, then he replied 40:04. I looked at my watch and saw it is 40:02! Then I decided to get myself to that bloody station and see what's going on there. When I arrived there in 40:14 I realised that it was all hallucination and that was such a relief. I had a few snacks, sat on the desk and rest my head on the table in front of me. I was once again desperate to take a nap. Five minutes later I woke up and left Vallorcine 45 minutes before the deadline.
The last climb of the course was brutal. I had already covered more than 150 km. And when I left Vallorcine it was half past ten in the morning. The weather is getting hot and to my surprise there were no water untill La Flegere. Soon after I left Vallorcine, half way through the climb to La Flegere, I ran out of water. under that sun on the very last ascent of the course, I could not find a drop of water. I was desperately searching for a water source under the plants. when I got to the top, I sat there for a few minutes and I just got a bottle of water from the rescue post there.  I could hardly move as I was dehydrated. there was a 2km of traverse to La Tete aux vents, which took me quite a lot of time. And there was a river from which I drank lots of water and continued the fairly technical downhill to La Flegere.

After  La Flegere I had almost two hours to cover the final 8km of the course. So I started running towards Chamonix as fast as I could. It was a quite runnable part and I was flying. After more than 45 hours of running I was getting there. I was making my way to the finish line of Ultra Trail du Mont-Blanc. That was something I was dreaming for the last couple of years. 

Shortly before arriving in Chamonix, i stopped and put my poles in my backpack and got ready for celebrating this achievement. UTMB is a great race and the best thing about it is the atmosphere at the finish line. When I got to Chamonix, there were people on both side of the path who shout, cheer and high five. I saw my sister 300 meters to the finish line and she ran with me the last 100 meters of the course. And that was it, finishing the UTMB in 45:31.

And here I am, standing at the finish line of the UTMB. Do follow your dreams, we only live once.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

On over-reaching your goal: The Eiger Ultra Trail E101, 18-19 July 2015

It is 47 km into the race and I'm walking downhill through a forest towards Burglauenen. It's been a great race so far.  I passed the last check point (Faulhorn, the highest point of the race) 15 minutes before my expected time and enjoyed running downhill to Schynige platte.  A few minutes ago, when I approached a corner on this muddy terrain,  a sharp pain hit my left knee so badly that forced me to stop. I cannot run anymore, I am using my walking sticks to take some weigth off my knee and slowly walking down. I could have run this part of the race quite fast and effortless if my knee didn't hurt. Through my training, I put so much effort to master my downhill running technique and I was quite confident in it that I'd consider it as one of my strength points. It hurts a lot when you have trained a lot and on race day you just cannot perform well. In fact that is hurting much more than my sore knee. As I am limping cautiously, there are many runners passing by, most of whom are kind enough to ask if I need any help. I am thinking how the hell I am going to finish this race. I even question my ability to run the UTMB. I seriously doubt if I am fit enough for the challenge. I know I should concentrate on my race and on taking the next step, but I just cannot help it. 

Eiger Ultra Trail is the best race I've ever run. The course, the organisation and the fellow runners are so great that I couldn't resist to run it for the second time last July. Last year it was my ultimate goal to finish the race, this year however, I wanted to push myself a bit harder in order to evaluate my improvement. It would also be my longest training run for the UTMB. So I set myself a goal time of 22 hours. Last year I reached the finish line in 25 hours 12 minutes, and with all the training that I had since then, three hours improvement sounded reasonable. So I wrote down the time splits based on a 21-hour finish and left one hour in case something unpredictable happened. Here are my expected time for each checkpoint:

First: 3:30
Faulhorn: 6:00
Burglauenen: 8:45
Wengen: 11:00
Mannlichen: 13:00
Kl Scheidegg: 15:00
Alpiglen: 18:00
Grindelwald (finish): 21:00

The race passed by quite smoothly and I reached Faulhorn (the highest point of the course) in 5:46. to Faulhorn. I was ahead of my plan for almost 15 minutes and I enjoyed one of the most spectacular part of the race on my way to Schynige platte. My predicted time for Burglauenen was 8:45. However , due to intense pain on my knee, I reached there in 9:20.

Burglauenen is the main station along the course on 53rd km, where you can have a dish of pasta, get your bag, change your clothes and seek medical care. It is also one of the stations that you can meet your supporters. It was here in Burlauenen that I felt the real meaning of moral support during a race. When I got to the station I was broken. I felt really bad partly because of the intense knee pain but mostly because I missed the joy of running downhill. Sara pushed me to get back to the trail and reminded me of all the hard training I had. She asked me to concentrate on this race and don't let any negative thoughts about the UTMB in my mind. After having a plate of pasta, putting some pain relief gel provided by Perskindol and wearing the compression quad sleeves I was all ready to go. I knew that I can still go uphill relatively fast and the good news was that I had two climbs to Wengen and Mannlichen. I left the station just before 2:30 pm (10 hours into the race) and started running towards Wengen. 

From Burglauenen to Wengen there is 6 km of climb and 4 km of descent. The climb went really smoothly and I even managed to run downhill. After Wengen it came the hardest part of the race. The part that I hated from last year. A vertical km within an ultra. The climb to Mannlichen took me more that two and a half hours last year, and when I got there I had to lie down in a medical tent for one hour and a half. This year though, I was going strong. It took me 1 hour 26 minutes to get from Wengen to Manlichen and arrived at the aid station in 12:52. After leaving Burglaunen 1 hour behind the schedule, I did not expect to reach there before 14:00.  I stayed there for more than 15 minutes,   refuelled, changed my cloths, had a chat with the staff and the volunteers there and thanked them for their kind support last year. When I left the station I was already three hours ahead of last year and I was feeling great.

I got to Kl. Scheidegg in 14:51 and it was still bright. Last year it got dark one hour  before reaching there and I didn't get a chance to appreciate the beautiful landscape. This year though it was still bright when I got to Alpiglen in 16:43. I stepped inside the hut, refuelled with some soup, banana and coke, take out my headlight. I noticed that there are some people sitting inside. When I was about to run again, I was asked by the staff to stop. The race was stopped due to thunderstorm and we had to wait until the weather gets better and the organisers decide how to resume the race.  I ended up staying there for more than two hours. The volunteers really took care of us and gave us plenty of soup and tea. After two hours, they said than we can continue the race, but the route will be 5 km shorter, we had to skip the last uphill to Pfingstegg. That was a bit of disappointment, I was feeling great and I really wanted to run the whole course. The last 9 km of the course passed fairly quickly and when I got to the finish line, the race clock was showing 20:13. Obviously that was not my time.

Timing was a bit complicated after all. We were told in Alpiglen and at the finish line, that everyone's time will be calculated depending the time they were waiting. I was in Alpiglen for a bit more than two hours. The next morning, the results were on and my time was 18:10. That did sound reasonable considering the 2-hour pause. But after a couple of hours, they decided to subtract 90 minutes of everyone's time (instead of more accurate individual waiting time) and changed my time to 18:43. There runners who were behind us, in Kl. Scheidegg and Mannlichen had to take an even shorter route of 88km. Some even had to get back to the previous station when the race stopped. Although some of us lost a bit of time in the final calculation, I reckon the organiser team did a really good job in keeping everyone safe on the trails.

I believe if I wasn't stopped by the thunderstorm and I had the chance to run the whole course, I'd get to the finish line around 19 hours. That means over-reaching my goal by three hours. Eiger still remains one of my favourite races and I'll definitely be back in a few years, if not next year.