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My 2021 UTMB Journey by Andy Clark

As I sit here 4 days after Ultra Trail Mont Blanc with a stomach full of French pastries, bread, every other carb-loaded food I could find, plus coffee, I wanted to start reflecting on my UTMB race. The hugeness of it all still seems overwhelming; the massive climbs and descents seem like a wild dream. I know for sure I have already forgotten parts of it, and others have all blended perfectly together, but here goes.

The course.

The course profile.

Because of covid the 2347 of us that showed up to the start line on Friday were divided into 3 separate waves. I was part of the first wave of 900ish runners leaving from Chamonix at 5pm. After a lot of speeches, hype, and for some reason, a high line display, they finally let us loose; we were off.

In the start coral.

Running through town was insane with spectators lining the sides of the streets for miles. Kids with their hands out for high fives, waiters holding out trays of beer for any runner game enough to drink at mile 1, and everyone yelling Allez Allez (go go). It felt so different from my almost exclusive solo training in the mountains at home.

The miles from the start flew by with adrenaline carrying me at a much faster pace than was smart for a race of this distance, and soon I was atop of the first climb, then bombing full speed down a ski hill. The way my legs felt after that first descent I knew I had to slow down or I was never going to get close to finishing. The sun was just starting to set as I made it to the first major aid station that allowed crew at it in Les Contamines, somewhere around mile 19 or 20.

Heading to the top of the first climb.

I met Shannon who had battled her way onto the last open seat on the first spectator bus leaving Chamonix. She helped restock the gels and bars I had eaten already and told me everyone was putting on a warmer layer and headlamps at this point. I threw on layers, grabbed some broth, chugged a cup of coke, and scarfed down half a banana and was off again for the longest climb of the race.

A sample of what kept me going in the early part of the race.

The trail from Les Contamines up to Col du Bonhomme starts with more of the party atmosphere- crowds lining the trail, having bonfires, and cooking fondue while cheering everyone on. All that quickly dissipates and the switchbacks to the top begin. It’s a crazy thing seeing lights so far straight above you and I found myself questioning if they were actual stars or headlamps. As I neared the top of the climb the cold wind and clouds socked in and made it hard to see further than a few meters ahead. Only the loud cheering and cowbells of the most hardcore European spectators near the top gave me a clue I was almost there. After rolling over the top of the col through the check point, the steep decent started and continued for what felt like forever.

I had read prior to the race that the climbs are tough but the descents will end your race, so despite being passed by people on every downhill, I tried to take them slowly.

The rest of the night continued in a similar fashion: steep climb, frozen body parts at the top, even steeper decent, top up bottles at aid station, eat a banana/ gel/ bar, chug coke, chug coke infused broth. To explain this a little more, UTMB has a list of required gear you have to carry with you at all times, warm layers, jacket, gloves, beanie, etc, but they also make you carry your own cup and or bowl to eat and drink from at the aid stations. I opted to only carry one small collapsible cup which I used for all the food and drink throughout the race.

At some point I crossed into Italy, but if there was a sign I missed it. Before I knew it I was running down steep, dusty switchbacks and onto the mostly deserted cobbled streets of Courmayeur. This was the second aid station that Shannon would be at and damn it was good to see her smiling face waving me over to the table she had claimed. Courmayeur is slightly less than halfway through the course, and as Shannon reminded me, was “where the real race starts”. This aid station was much the same routine: I ate a small amount of pasta, drank coke and broth with bread that I soaked in it, gave Shannon a kiss and was off into the darkness yet again.

The high of making it to Courmayeur, seeing Shannon, and the warmth of the aid station, wore off very quickly and the reality of what was still to come kicked in as I slogged my way up the steep rocky and rooted switch backs up to Refugio Bertone. My headlamp died with about 20 minutes of darkness left and I was left using my phone light to change out the battery. My frozen fingers refused to work quickly making the simple task take what felt like forever.

I arrived at Bertone as the coldest part of the morning lingered on. I drank multiple cups of broth to try to warm up and I must have looked terrible because the Italian medic at the aid station kept checking in on me.

From Refugio Bertone the trail becomes perfect rolling terrain for a few miles. I had previously read it was a great place to run some relatively flat sections, but my legs did not agree. I mostly walked what could have been an amazing trail section of trail if I had fresh legs. I had, however, timed this section perfectly to catch the sunrise on Mont Blanc and the alps which was a great reminder of why this race is so special to so many runners.

Section of perfect trail. Not feeling perfect.

After the rolling trail we had a comparatively easy descent down to the Arnouvaz aid station at approximately the 100km mark. Here I saw my first real carnage of the race- a runner with a huge cut on her leg being treated by the medics. I branched out my food selections as the hourly gel or bars I had been eating were getting really tough to get down. I gambled and made a mini sandwich of cheese and salami which I knew could go badly if it didn’t sit right.

Leaving the aid station we were required to put on our jackets as the next checkpoint was up at the highest point of the course; Gran Col Ferret, 8323ft. This section was all above tree line and gave some amazing views before we again switched to descent mode and I had to be mindful were I was putting my feet. The Gran Col Ferret descent is the longest sustained downhill in the race dropping around 4500ft in total with a pause at the La Fouly aid station. My gamble with the sandwich had paid off and I was feeling really good all the way down into Switzerland.

By this time the heat of the day had kicked in and the mental and physical momentum I had felt from the long down left me as soon as the trail switched back to an ascent. I tried dunking my hat in a fountain and sat in the shade on multiple switch backs, but the “small” 1000ft climb up to Champex Lac was certainly the lowest I felt the entire race. I eventually made it to the aid station where thankfully Shannon was waiting.

This was the third aid station that crew were allowed at and the timing couldn’t have been better. Shannon looked at me, recognized my state, poured cold water down my back and encouraged me to empty out my shoes and change into some fresh socks. I chugged a bunch of water, coke and broth and reluctantly got back on the trail after a motivating pep-talk from Shannon reminding me of how much work I had done to get here and how well I was actually doing.

Leaving Champex-Lac I was still tired physically, but my head was back in the right space. This was a good thing, because for me, this was about to be the hardest climb of the race. A lot of it was very steep with loose, round rocks that made for terrible footing. I passed at least two faster runners who had dropped and were doing the walk of shame back down. I kept reminding myself to just keep moving- this was what I had been working towards for so long and somehow I got up it. I don’t really remember the descent of this climb other than getting towards the bottom and tricked myself into thinking I was close to the aid station, I wasn’t, the trail continued for miles further.

It was around this point that I started seeing the dogs. The dogs were all different sizes, some were sitting on the edge of the trail, others were darting off into the bushes just as I rounded a corner. I kept seeing them out of the corner of my eye, but whenever I turned my head to get a good look they would disappear into thin air or morph into their original form of a rock or stump.

Eventually I made it to the Trient aid station at around 145km which is set in a postcard-perfect Swiss village. Shannon, as usual, was there waiting for me with food ready. By this stage I had completely quit eating the clif bars and gels I had packed to eat for the whole race. I inhaled another mini cheese and salami sandwich, more broth, some kind of sweet bread, half a banana, and my first Advil of the race, (not because I needed it, but thinking preventively). I had passed a couple of people coming into this aid station. With Shannon’s enthusiasm combined with knowing that I only had two more climbs until the finish, I found a boost of energy, which a few hours before, I would have thought was impossible.

Between Trient and the next aid station, Vallorcine, there was a ~2,400’ foot climb which starts almost straight out of the aid station. The trail was much better on this section and I was able to move a little faster. On the way up I passed a couple of runners and closed the gap on others.

Like all the climbs in the race this one came with its own challenges. This time it was the cows. Yes, they were actually there and were not hallucinations. First, I came into a narrow section of trail and found myself face to face with a large rump blocking the trail. It was happily grazing with no interest in moving despite myself and the other runner I was with, yelling at it. Eventually we made it past and were back on our way. The cows of the area all display varying sizes of bells around their necks which makes for a surreal “Sound of Music” feel when you’re on the trail. The spectators, however, ring the same cow bells while cheering the runners on, often at the tops of the climbs which helps motivate you to push a little harder knowing the top is near. I heard the bells in the distance and pushed a little harder to get to the top and, (excuse my French), it was the fucking cows!

The decent to Vallorcine was a nice runable trail, which then lead onto a ski run down into the village. I passed more runners on the way down and knowing I was in 130-120th place, made a plan in my mind that I was going to get through the aid station as quickly as possible, and would then pick off a few more runners while they restocked/rested.

It may have been the upwards of 20 espressos Shannon had drank with her new Italian friend, Alberto, (he was crewing for another runner that had been running at a similar pace to me the entire race- she was performing her own endurance event without sleep, getting to each aid station on the race provided buses) or the fact that I had passed more runners and was actually looking like I would finish in the top 100, but by the time I reached Vallorcine, Shannon was bouncing off the walls with enthusiasm. I entered the aid station and told her my plan to get back out as quickly as possible, she was all in and quickly filled my bottles while I shoved food into my mouth as quickly as I could. Knowing that it was about to get dark I threw on another layer, my headlamp, kissed Shannon goodbye, and was off.

With one final climb coming before the descent into Chamonix I did my best to try to pace myself, but the adrenaline had kicked in in a big way. I ran up the dirt road out of town and started on the last steep climb just as it was getting dark. Fear that the runners I had just passed were gaining on me was motivating me just as much as anything. I decided I wasn’t going to turn my headlamp on for as long as possible, so that the runners ahead didn’t know I was coming and the runners behind me couldn’t see who they had to catch. I almost made it the entire climb in the dark with the light of the moon, and the light of runners headlamps I passed illuminating the way. The trail then made a rocky and technical traverse of the valley to the top of the La Flegere lift. Here I grabbed more of the mystery sweet bread in the aid station without breaking stride and started on the final decent into Chamonix.

Other than the first flat 4 miles at the beginning of the race, this was the only section of the course I had the opportunity to run prior to the race and I wanted to make the most of it. I bombed down the ski run and onto the rooty, rocky switchbacks. I passed Chalet la Floria where Shannon and I had sat two days before eating lunch and cheering on the OCC 55km runners. From there I ran as hard as my heavy and uncoordinated legs would allow. Down, down, down to the outskirts of town where some sadistic race organizer had decided that, rather than allow us to cross the road right in front of us, we had to climb and descend two flights of scaffold stairs to get up and over the road. After the last seemly huge struggle up and over the road, it was all flat into town.

Directed by the unending amount of race volunteers, I ran through the pedestrian section of town, still busy despite it being almost midnight, people drinking and cheering, ringing cow bells and blowing horns. I entered the final straight to the finish arch and ran as hard as I could. I crossed the line in 30 hours and 19 seconds, 96th place and 1st and only(?) New Zealander.

Crossing the finish line.

Somehow Shannon had worked her magic and gotten past security and into the finish area and was ecstatically waiting for me there, jumping up and down. The announcer at the end tried her best to interview me, but I wasn’t able to say much. Shannon and I slipped out and met up with some newly made friends to celebrate. I drank the beer I had thought so much about in the hottest part of the day, but when all was said and done, nothing tasted quite as good as finishing the hardest race I had ever attempted. The UTMB in Chamonix. A trail runners dream.

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