Beautiful burning beast and how to survive a DNF
This race reflection has been my hardest one to write so far. But here it is.
A little mote than two weeks has passed since my DNF of the A-race for the year, TDS in France. Quite the opposite to what I had planned and hoped for. However, that is ultra racing in a nutshell; very seldom things goes according to plan (or in life for that matter.). I am not going to dwell over what happened because I am over it and I look ahead to new challenges. However I am going to give some reflections of the race itself since that is how we learn from our experiences. I will also try to understand what could have gone wrong, or try to find possible reasons to why I had to drop out after 48k. I am fully aware of that sometimes there are no answers. But HEAT was defintely one of them…
During the last two weeks of my training, I kept on sneezing with a runny nose and I was coughing for unknown reason. I did not have an increased pulse pressure which normally is a good measurement of ones state of health for the day. Therefore I assumed I was allergic to something, which I normally never am. Could it have been the flat? Or maybe hayfever? Or could it be an infection… I did have a bit of swollen glands in my throat, but I can have that on and off as well without it meaning anything. I felt tired yes, and I felt like I did not recover as quickly as I normally would expect to do. But I had 10 good days of hardly any training as tapering, just some weights in the gym and one short uphill run, which really got my heart rate up. It had been warm, around 34 degrees and I am normally very sluggish in heated conditions, but I thought I was well acclimatised to the heat. The last days leading up to the race I did not sleep well, but then again, who does?
Race bib collected as the only runner to do so at 5 am on race day.
My race number happend to be left in Chamonix, so I had to do my kit-check and collect my race bib the same morning as the start, at 5 am, since the start was at 6 am in Courmayeur and by then my race number would be ready for me. Despite this I felt fine, and I was completely ready to trot along on the dark streets of Courmayeur after the sound of the start gun. To my surprise the streets were full of people cheering us at this hour before coffee o’clock. As always I am humbled by the audicence these races attract, afterall we are just a bunch of nutters who loves to run for silly distances at odd times in lovely surroundings…
I went out in a decent pace and tried to find my place amongst the crowd of excited racers. Everyone trying to claim their spot on the trail. When the sluggish uphill came I started to feel my heart rate elevate massively. Nothing odd with that and so early on and with added excitement, it was to be expected. When we came to the first climb, instead of taking the switchback trail in the forest, we went straight up on the dirt track road. I made it clear from the beginning not to go out at an insane pace, but to be the “macchina” I had trained to be, meaning that I could go out power hiking, feeling confident in my pace.
Early morning darkness. Love racing in the dark!
What happend next was that my heart rate never settled, like it should have done. Instead it kept on shooting sky high peaking at 90% of max sometimes, with me only fast hiking. I started to breath heavily and got that kind of heavy breathing you have in the last phases of a 10k race. I did not feel well, however I put those feeling aside, I was focused on reaching the first aid station of Masion Veille in one hour. And so I did with added two minutes. When the first climb was done, all in a stunning sunrise with the morning mist hanging over the Aosta valley, some less hilly sections came along, which normally means a breather. That never happened either. Even though I went for a quick toilet visit, my heart rate kept on spiking and I can see from my log that even on the downhill, I reach peaks of 85-90% of my HR max. Something that never happend during training and should not have happend now, being in the shape of my life and all. Obviously I did not look that carfeully on my watch but instead focused on pushing myself with the hope to settle into a comfortable pace. That pace was never found. Even though I had ran that same section 5 times in training, I never felt as wasted as I did now. Again, this was something I hoped would ease off. So I just kept on pushing up to 2500 meters at Arrete de Mont Favre.
The dirt track taking us up the first climb. With a weird smile I did enjoy the stunning sunrise and the view over Aosta Valley, seen in the background.
It was really alarming that I felt so rough so early on in the race. I could hardly enjoy neither the sunny face of Monte Bianco nor the helicopter that was hoovering above us for some video footage. I was still focussing on trying to get my breathing under control. With a burn in my chest I started to feel that I might have gone out too hard, and from there all kinds of thoughts came to mind. Since I knew that the brutal vertical that came after Lac du Combal would slow me down, I kept on pushing in a steady pace to get there. Afterall, this is what we do as ultra trail runners, we keep on pushing in hope for whatever discomfort we feel shall ease off, beacuse mostly it does. That is persistence. That is what we are trained for.
I did not hang around for long at the aid station at Lac Combal but just briefly filled my water flask. Already the heat was hanging in the air at 7 o’clock, and we knew we were in for some serious hot business for the day.
Arrete de Mont Favre. Photographer: Pascal Tournaire.
View over the valley and Lac combal towards the brutal wall up to 2600 meters. Photo credit Fullcoursetrails.
At the climb to Col Chavannes I died a little. I had absolutely no muscle power left. It was like the 8 months of rigorous training, and the last 3 weeks of mountains had left me with zero effect. I became really put down by this and let people pass me in hopelesness. Here the first mind battle started. I felt like giving up, seriously what was the point? But then that would mean giving in to your mind beacuse as far as I knew I still had loads of energy left, I just needed to tune into it… So I did the ultra trick; just make it to the top and then make a new decision.
After the gruelling slow snail paced climb up to the summit of Col Chavanne at 2600 meters, I took a few minutes to collect myself. I had been here with Tabor, this was familiar territory. Runners were passing me, but I took no notice. Many were the women who passed me, but I did not count them. It was like they got rocket fuel in their legs and they started flying down. For me the race was over, I told myself. Now it was all about surviving, to make it to the finish line. Resilience. But first I had to make it to Bourge Saint Maurice where my Aunt and ‘uncle’ would wait for me around lunch time. I could not let them hang around in vain, yet again..(they waited paintently for me 2 years ago when I did UTMB but had to DNF before I even met them!). But man did I feel battered! I was seriously worried how to manage but again told myself; just one step at the time, that is all it takes. No pressure. Easy, light, smooth and fast. Just one foot in front of the other.
So the long descent to Alpetta began some 30k in the race. We passed by the places where I and Tabor had been just weeks prior. I felt that I slowly got some energy back and could stretch out my legs and pick up some speed withouth my heart rate spiking too much. I visualised myself being in the rolling armchair, although I wasn’t feeling tired in my legs anymore, but I just wanted some rest after the rather hard start. I regained energy and laughed to myself about this mind game that an ultra event is. From dead to alive. From sad to happy. But was it only a mind game though?
The King of the mountains.
When I looked at the watch, I was going to be well within my average goal pace: 10 mins/km. Obviously, I had no intention to modify my pace yet, although I knew that I had to slow down later on. So far so good I thought, and all of a sudden a new race unfolded. I started to enjoy the surroundings and could push a little bit even on the uphill sections that now started towards the little Saint Bernard pass and the border to France. I felt grateful that I finally was able to use my strentgh. Sure I was still hitting 75-80% of my HR max, but I had my breathing under control. On the climb up to passo de Piccolo St Bernardo, people were cheering along the trails, and I fully enjoyed the moments of being in the spotlight, because ultra running is a lonely sport and your mind is your base fuel, but when the crowd goes crazy; you feed off from that amazing buzz and energy and simply run faster! However, the new player in the game had come to joins us; the heat…
Trotting with regained energy on the uphill.
Where’s the snow?
Just beautiful surroundings at the border between Italy and France. Here at Lago di Verney.
Happy again. Just soaked my legs in the water.
The good thing with all photographers is that you force yourself to smile, which makes the journey more pleasent…
It was around 11:30 and it was hot. It was very little if any, wind. Then the longest descent in the race, from the the small Saint Bernard pass to Bourge Saint Maurice begun. From an altitude of 2200 meters to 800 meters with a distance over 16 km, we were in for some pure downhill running. I had done my research so I knew it was a hard one, that it could take over 2 hours. I wanted to do it as fast as I my body could allow. I had just got some energy back! But the heat started to make me feeling uncomfortable. I had no problems with refuelling or drinking as far as I remember. I did probably not drink enough, because of stitches. But I kept on putting my head down in every spring I could see, just to cool down a little bit. It had some effect but now it was really really hot. Luckily downhill is my favourite and after the super sessions with coach Phill in the gym with all kinds of squatting, deadlifting, kettlebell session and circuits with Vannessa, I felt that my legs could handle the stress of some speedy downhill running. I passed a lot of runners during this section and started to feel that I was back in the game.
Hit by the heat and the struggle was on again. Just before the border to France.
Hells kitchen where fried ultra runners were served all day long
My split from the border of Italy to France was around 1,5 hour, which was fast. But I did enjoy the downhill section, I felt solid and strong and my Saucony Peregrine was super light and stable, and I finally got that flow that I had been waiting for. But. The heat. Was ON. Every time I passed a spring, I soaked my head. When I reached the outskirts of Bourge it was like hitting a brick wall of heat. The temperature hit 36 Celsius with aboslutely no wind. Bourge is situated at low altitude squeezed in between many mountains. It literally felt like I reached hell (not that I have been there before…). I had to walk many minutes and pushed myself to run-walk-run whenever I could think clearly, to get to the aid station. I was wasted. I could neither think nor run fast, I could only walk, run, walk. I needed to rest. When I came closer to the aid station you could here the whole town cheering and celebrating the runners. Again, like a vitamin injection it gave me new energy so I at least could run into the area looking like a runner, although I felt nothing like it. I saw my Aunt and ‘uncle’ and immeditealy threw myself in their arms. But there was no time to waste. They could tell I had been suffering. I might subconciously have known that I was dead meat. I gave myself 13 minutes to eat and drink. I still did not want to sit down in fear of me wanting to stay. The music was load, the spactators were cheering and the HEAT was on. I had no problems with eating my pizza slices and drink some Vitargo electrolyte and coke. More coke. And more coke. I needed the toilet and then off I went. I told my family that I could do this, but it was now the real race begun.
I never felt well rested from the most important aid station of the race. I knew that this section was the hardest one in the race up to Fort de la Platte and I had seen parts of it with Tabor, so I sort of should have known what was coming. I started off in a good pace, determined that the ones who never gives up, is the one who wins. I tried all kinds of mind games while I was passing people who were resting on the side of the trail. Some looked more exhausted than others. Then I saw a female runner coming back down in a quick pace. I concluded she was one of the top ladies as I hadn’t seen her before. Then more and more runners were coming down. This rasied questions in my head, and although I did not think about it at the time, I know it had an impact of my own decision later on. After 20 minutes and when coming out from the forest into the open, it was insanely hot. I had to stope several times. I had no energy left and I started to feel extremly fatigued. So bad that I had to sit down every 10th meter. I started to get dizzy and no fuel seemed to help. I was stumbling and feeling tight around my chest. I don’t remember if I got any weird sensations in my arm but generally I felt weird. I was exhausted. I had turned into a zombie. In this pace I would loose my ranking and it became a question of IF I could make though the cut-off times. I had to do something. But I continued to snail pace myself up the punishing wall towards Fort de la Platte. Then I felt the cramp in my heart. Immediately I lied down to rest. I called my Aunt and told her what happend. She told me to quit. I said that I would try just a little bit, just to be sure that it was not all in my head. So I tried to go a little bit further, but now it started to cramp even more. A very focal cramp. Could it have been my pecs? Any referral from my back muscles considering my heavy back pack? I quickly analysed the possible causes for my chest strain. Since I have experienced this before, I know that a heart muslce can become tired. There was no doubt that this was very much the same I felt. I called back and said that I was done.
Now I just needed to walk the same trail down, meeting all the runners on their way up. Luckily my sunglasses covered the tears that I couldn’t stop from falling. So much emotions flushes thorugh when you make a decision like this. You feel that you are letting the crew down, the very ones who have helped you in one way or another to get to that start line. It felt like I was a scam and not a true athlete. It is an aweful feeling.
In order not to break down completely, I started to cheer my fellow competitors, it helped to ease my dissapointment somewhat. At least temporary. Now there were more runners behind me who joined me on my road back to Hell’s kitchen.
Another cut in the race bib stating the premature end of a race.
When I reached Bourge Saint Maurice before I headed up to Fort de la Platte, I was in 196 place overall, after 6 hours and 48 minutes with an average pace of 9:35 mins/km. That is good, really good. I have no clue about the ranking amongst the females, but considering half of the top seeded women dropped out where I did or the next aid station after that, it doesn’t really matter. There was a 40% drop out rate during this UTMB. This was just one of those days were the heat was killing us all. Maybe I had some late stages of an infection as well. Either way, when your heart is hurting, you stop. The game is only a game. And life is life and worth living. After all, there are so many more places I want to explore and so many more races I want to do. I might not return to the UTMB specatcle for many years, but I am happy to go back to the mountains as soon as I get a chance again.
A big thank you to everyone inlvolved in helping me out in this race; you know who you are! Let’s look forward now for next years big race; Matterhorn I say…
Post race status
I feel good and recovered and have started to train for another adventure in the Lake District on the 24 of September. A 80km/50 mile race with over 4000meters of elevation.
Hopefully I will be able to get to the start line and hopefully I can finish that one.
Meanwhile, thanks for reading!
Recovery with a view. Guess which summit is Mont Blanc? (Not the one you might think)
Days after, more energy to spare. A climb to Glacier d’Argentiere was as beautiful as I remebered it from last time. Photo: Sir T.
Keep on moving and kick ass!
Fuelled by Vitargo UK.