I woke up lazily to the sun rays hitting the bed. The weekend had been such a whirlwind. Post-UTMB. The effects were slowly sinking in, I still could not believe that the race was over. That I had completed it, all 170km and 10,000m elevation.
“It is a celebration, a pilgrimage, a circumambulation—it is a kora for those who choose. … A pilgrimage is often associated with a physical journey, but it is also a search for moral or spiritual significance.” ~ Lizzy Hawker, 5x winner, UTMB
UTMB, the Mecca of trail races. An iconic ultra race that lures runners from around the world. It is not the toughest, nor longest, nor oldest, yet we come in droves each year. When UTMB began in 2003, only 700 runners signed up and 67 completed. Now, the number for UTMB per se is capped at 2,300 runners. Even then, one had to chalk up points to ballot for a slot. It is a race notorious for its incessant climbs and unpredictable weather. In 2010, the event was cancelled mid-race; in 2012, it was shortened in response to dangerous weather. The UTMB does not hand out prize money to winners, yet it has established itself as the ultra trail race championship where elites miss a night’s sleep, mere mortals two, and finishers earn a lifetime’s bragging rights.
I started ultra trail running back in 2007, taking baby steps in our humble MR25 Ultra (Singapore). Round after round, I was instantly hooked. Over the years, I would hear about runners going to events and accumulating points that would then grant them a chance to ballot (not even guaranteed) for a mystical race called the ‘UTMB’. I just kept running. UTMB seemed like such a distant wishful thinking, reserved for those in a different league. Then my races got longer, and farther out in the world. Even though I had enough points for a ballot in 2014, I was still apprehensive about the race. One experienced SGP runner who had run UTMB frankly pointed out that if I could not even finish the HK TNF100, I should not be thinking about UTMB. Looking through the race profile and time sheet then, I would be a borderline case. Fortuitously, I did not get the ballot either. Ah yes, the messages were aligned. I remain thankful for my friend’s point-blank feedback. Coming into UTMB in 2016, I definitely feel more confident and conditioned for the race. I have clocked my fair share of ultras, averaging one race per month, and exposure to varied mountainous terrain and high altitude through trekking and expeditions. With each step and each event, I learnt something about myself and my gear.
Nonetheless, UTMB marked my first 100-miler (slightly more) and I was a nervous wreck before the race. Enroute to Chamonix, I transited in Iceland, did a 55km trek, ran a road marathon, and still felt insufficient for what laid ahead. Arriving in Chamonix a week ahead of the race, I soaked myself in the beautiful mountain valleys every day, taking short hikes at 2,000m-plus altitude to calm my nerves. Away from the crowds and buzz in the city centre, the gorgeous weather and scenery soothed my anxious mind and distracted me from over-thinking about the race. It was useful to have a sense of the sights and terrain so that I did not go into the race blind. I tried out my new LA Sportiva Bushido shoes again in the trail, brilliant! Its lower profile and sock-like fit prevented my feet from sliding in the shoes, and I felt confident stepping on the rocks. Each step landed exactly how I visualised it to be, instead of being ‘altered’ by a pair of shoes. Legs, lungs, gear… mentally checked.
The UTMB is the largest trail running festival in the world. Some 7,300 runners from 87 nations would take part in the five different races (UTMB, CCC, TDS, PTL, and OCC) under the UTMB banner. The race bib collection and race expo were such an eye-opener. So many elite-looking runners, everyone looked so seasoned and experienced. I felt like a little girl in the midst of giants (well, quite literally too, given their heights), gawking at the various race tees that people were wearing, observing the gear that they carried. Many European brands and races were new to me, I soaked in all the excitement and race possibilities. I met Corrado, the guy manning the Vibram truck that went around European trail races to replace shoe soles with the Vibram Mega-grip. He had grown up and studied in Singapore, and we had a fun time conversing in Singlish. Tip from Corrado: LUT (Lavaredo, which I completed two months earlier in June) was more technical than UTMB. Coupled with the unbeatable support and atmosphere in UTMB, I should (fingers-crossed) hopefully be fine. Then I met Cristine, a lady manning the Trail Running Movement booth, and who had just completed the Trans-Pyrenea Ultra (a whopping crazy 890km!). She told me the same tip as well. I felt a wee bit better after that.
Race day. 6pm flag-off. The weather forecast was sunny, with some chance of scatter thunderstorms. I decided on my TNF Reaxion tee and a pair of normal (non-insulated) CWX compression tights. My hotel was a stroll from the drop-bag collection point and the start line. As I dropped off my gear bag and went to buy a burger, there were already many runners milling the city centre. Too many humans and sounds! I needed to get back to my room, gather my energy and centre myself.
My aim was to complete the race in good shape with no injuries or mishaps. My strategy, if any, was to follow the time-chart given by the organisers, and to keep within the cut-off times for each checkpoint. The first 8km from Chamonix to Les Houches was a relatively flat/ downhill run, which most of us cleared comfortably. Then we started climbing and descending to the first cut-off at Saint Gervais (21km). I reached there in good time within 45min of the limit. I felt ok, and focused on building my buffer in anticipation of Day 2 and the second half of the race, where there would be more pronounced climbs, descents, and fatigue. Slowly, I increased the buffer to about 1h (Les Contamines; 31km), 1:15h (Les Chapieux; 49km). We had to climb almost 1,000m from Les Chapieux (1,554m) up to Col de la Seigne (2,502m) and then to Col des Pyramides Calcaires 2,563m). Step by step, my mantra went. Soon it was daybreak, and we were treated to a breathtaking sight of being at the cloudline and seeing the fluffy cottony clouds floating in the valleys. At that altitude, the snow had not fully melted, so we had to cross slush and scramble up huge boulders to get across the two cols. That was the moment I fully appreciated my Bushidos, merci. Every landing on the boulder gave me peace of mind.
With the sunrise, I was up and awake again in my usual perky self. Powered by sunshine, oh yeah! I made my way to Lac Combal (66km) with a buffer of 1:45h. There, I met another SGP runner, Kenneth Lim. He told me that he was not feeling well and could not eat much. As it turned out, we would continue meeting each other at every checkpoint, and he would feel worse, yet go on faster and faster! Salute! Finally, I reached Courmayeur (79km), where our drop bags were. We were now in the Italian part of the Mont Blanc valley. Gracias. I had close to 2h buffer and so I decided to get some food and a change of gear. I had packed some microwaveable gohan (Japanese cooked rice) in my drop bag, thinking that I could add hot soup and have a comfort meal. Alas, the rice was not warm enough and I forced myself to chew through half the pack. The pasta served at the checkpoint was also not to my liking. I pecked a few bites and settled on drinking more noodle soup and hot tea. Note to self: test out food before race (roll-eyes at self). I did not normally change my gear during ultras, but thought that I would this time, given the intensity and duration of the race. So I slipped on fresh clothes, socks and shoes, and finally made my way out of the checkpoint. I had already spent about 40min there, and it was eating into my hard-built buffer. Another note to self: be more efficient at checkpoints (alas say only, never materialised).
The weather was really hot, and everyone was feeling the heat. Each time there was a water pipe or stream, runners would wet their caps or refill their bottles. Luckily, the heat did not bother me as much, I much preferred it to being wet and cold. With a new burst of energy, I was able to get up the next 19km in good time and regained my buffer of 1:45h at Arnuva (97km). Someone shouted my name, and I was surprised to see Josephine and her friends there! So heartening to see familiar faces. In good spirits, I made a consistent 740m climb to Grand Col Ferret (2,525m), where Pon was waiting. He had hiked up to catch me, awesome! It was almost sunset as we descended to the Swiss side. It was a long descent, not my forte at all, but I managed to run somewhat to La Fouly (1,600m). By then it was getting dark and runners were heading into our second night. I got out my headlamp, and wondered how I would keep myself awake. The next major checkpoint was Champex-Lac. I arrived there just past midnight, having completed 124km in some 30h. I heard some distant rumbling and prayed hard that the weather would hold up. The checkpoint was bustling with supporters checking in on their runners. I quickly grabbed some food and decided that I should also get some sleep. I met Kenneth, who had just napped and freshened up. The resting tent comprised several mattresses, each with a pillow and fleece blanket. I laid down, set my alarm, and tried to fall asleep. Unfortunately, I was too excited to doze off and only managed a 10-min eye shut.
The journey to the next checkpoint at Trient was the most painful part of the race for me. We had to descend to Plan de l’Au before a massive endless climb up to La Giete. Soon, we were accompanied by rolling thunder and flashes of lightning, and then the skies showered on us. Thankfully, it was only a persistent drizzle instead of the forecasted thunderstorm. (Post-race, I found out that there were indeed heavy downpours over at Chamonix that night.) All of us trotted along in silence, fatigue showing in our slow pace. At Plan de l’Au, we wound our way through a small village where one helpful family had set up a drinks booth and offered runners tea and coffee. Such was the atmosphere at UTMB. No matter what time it was, there were always people cheering along the route, and that brought much warmth to us.
Passing Plan de l’Au, we began our climb up to La Giete. Although the absolute gain was only 535m, it was an eternity for me. So many runners passed me from the back and I lost a lot of lead time on that section. I was trying extremely hard to stay awake and focus. Looking at the stream of headlamps snaking before and behind me, I fought the zzz-monster and tried to inspire myself to pick up pace. After La Giete, it was a long downhill to Trient. The valley was so far down in the distance that I knew the checkpoint was not going to appear any time soon. I pushed along in the dark, through vegetation and trees which reminded me of Hong Kong races. Finally, I got to Trient with about a 2h buffer.
Daylight was breaking (again) and I willed myself to stay awake. Climbs were usually my forte but the last couple of hours were pure torture. I mentally admonished myself for the lacklustre ascent, took some tea and soup, and set off with a target for a power climb to Catogne (700m elevation). I had a good pace and rhythm, step-step-step-step, which unfortunately also made me sleepy. Two days with only a 10-min eye shut, I was beginning to ‘hallucinate’. I forgot where I was and wondered what I was doing on a steep hill early in the morning. After some incoherent thoughts, I finally remembered that I was still in a race! We made it up Catogne, and then it was a long zig-zag descent to the next major checkpoint at Vallorcine. I really was not fond of those descents. So many runners caught up from the back and passed me, and I was still tottering my way down, argh…. As I made my way into Vallorcine (151km!), I met Kee Seng, Josephine, Rita, Tiffany, Yao Ming, Pon etc who were cheering there. Their excitement gave me renewed energy to press on! Another SGP runner, Roger, was at the checkpoint too, and we soon headed off on our last 19km of the race.
I was fairly confident of the next section to La Flegere, having hiked some of the area prior to the race. Hopping and skipping along, Roger commented that I was still so perky. “要完了! (Finishing soon!)” was my reply. The thought of completing the race was enough to drive me on, although I was also careful not to be overly complacent. We were still in the mountains afterall, and anything could happen. The ascent to La Tete aux Vents was about 8km and a 900m gain over a rocky terrain. Slowly, steadily, up we went. Roger decided to escape the heat and took off swiftly on the descent after Tete aux Vents to La Flegere. I arrived at almost 1pm and then it was the 7km homerun stretch to Chamonix. Awesome! I decided to ‘let go and chiong’ all the way down. Just off La Flagere, I spotted Louis and William, who had hiked up to take photos of the race. A quick "Hi!" and I continued on. I had been rather conservative throughout the race, not knowing what to expect, and hence had enough energy to run 7km. I experimented with a faster downhill run and forced myself to go non-stop on the winding semi-rocky trail. Scary but exhilarating. Go, go, go! For the first time, I overtook runners on the descent (!) and when I finally hit tarmac, I was plain delirious. I picked up pace to sprint the last 1km back into Chamonix city centre and passed more runners. Almost there! Along the river, past my hotel, and winding into the main streets where people were cheering and clapping, it was an emotional moment and I held back tears. And then, the UTMB arch and the timing mats! 44:11h, I did it! Yeah, the 2nd/ 3rd SGP female finisher to ever complete the race (the first being Jeri, our undisputed Queen of trails :))! Sarina, Chiew Lan, Grace and Echo were at the finishing line, we were all ecstatic and I still could not believe that moment. Deep inhale. I pulled out my SGP flag and took a shot at the Finisher photo booth. Grins, wide smiles, pride, humility, disbelief, surreal… I was cheery and hyper, my legs were still fine, buoyed by the adrenalin boost. It would no doubt take a while for the news to sink in, and I did not want the moment to end. My first 100-miler, at the Mecca of trail running, UTMB!
It was a weekend where the stars aligned. I am extremely thankful for the good weather, friends who were tracking and cheering from Singapore and Chamonix, and fabulous race gear that kept me going and going without any blisters or abrasions. Special mention for La Sportiva Bushido – excellent, excellent, excellent!, and Patagonia Barely There sports bra – not a single abrasion! I am not sure if I would attempt UTMB again, the conditions this time would be hard to beat. Yet its allure is irresistible….