Monday, February 27, 2017

Trans GranCanaria (24 - 25 Feb 2017)



My curiosity in the Trans GranCanaria (TransGC) was piqued during the UTMB race expo last year (2016). They had a promotional booth and the lady quipped that Gran Canaria was a lovely island with 22C sunshine. I took a photo and got a free race belt, but I was really sold on the weather (so lame, right?) Alas, more on that later.

Some background to GC. It is the largest of the Canary Islands, an autonomous region of Spain. Touted as Europe's sports island, it is a big round island with long coastal fronts and a volcanic mountainous interior. Due to its warmer climate (relative to Europe), GC hosts many sporting events each year, from trail runs, marathons, mountain biking, golf etc. However, GC is described as a continent in terms of its weather, with micro-climates across the island. Huge cacti of many varieties dot the island amidst green valleys and vistas; it is a fascinating mix. More photos of GC here.

 

The south is the proverbial 'sunny beaches', where it is warmer and people are out sun-tanning. The north and interior are much colder. When the TransGC lady told me about the weather, I had in mind a cooler version of Lombok or Krabi,... alas!


The Race

TransGC is a collection of 5-6 race categories. Its namesake, which I signed up for, is 125km, +8,000m, 30h. It is also part of the Ultra Trail World Series, and a UTMB 6pt race. There were 900 runners in this category, majority from Europe (escaping the cold winters), some from N. America, and only a handful from Asia. Very under-represented.


I stayed near the race expo at ExpoMelonaras, which was also the finish line. Race pack collection, bag drop, pasta party, and race briefing went smoothly.


The race starts on Friday 11pm and ends on Sunday 5am. It is a point-to-point race, i.e. different start and end points. There was a bus shuttle to the start point in Agaete on Friday night, and it arrived 1.5h ahead of the start time! For me, who usually gets into the line just in time for the flag-off, I was wondering what to do in the interim. There were no race tentages or facilities for runners. So I plonked myself in a cafe to escape the cold and wind, and drowned self in coffee and hot chocolate.

Overall, TransGC was one big 'meat grinder' climb (to quote a friend's description). It had four back-to-back major climbs, interspersed by their descents. Each climb was ~1,000-1,500m in elevation gain, over distances of 8-13km. (To give a sense of perspective, HK Lantau Peak is 934m; Hiking from the lake to the crater rim at Mt Rinjani is approx +1,000m. Repeat four times non-stop.) Some were straight-up climbs, and others were endless winding slopes. These climbs were front-loaded in the first 81km of the race, where the drop bag major checkpoint was (strangely it was not around 60km mark). We encountered the first climb right after the flag off, to CP1 (9km, +1,021m) The cutoff time was 3h, and I took 2:10h. Mental note to self to build more buffer time. Descending to CP2, there was a bottleneck at a trick slippery section, where we had to wait in line for the rope. Subsequently, that ate into my buffer by a few minutes. 



Getting to CP3 involved the longest climb, a 13.3km stretch, +1,500m, with a time allocation of 3.5h. It was a fairly long time without an aid station, and it reminded me of the CP5-6 section of HK Vibram100. Exposed windy ridge, endless ups and downs in the dark. I met a German lady and we ran alongside, taking turns to lead and spot the route markers. It was daybreak by the time we reached CP3, but still misty and cold. What happened to the promised 22C? 



I kept the 35min buffer before descending to CP4. It was the only stretch that had more paved and flatter roads, where I built up a 55min buffer. Times like that, I appreciate also having a road running base to pound pavements. Next, it was a gradual roll to CP5 and CP6. Very good, buffer increased to 75min. The sun shone through briefly and I warmed up a bit. Gosh, I would love to run this in warmer weather, like during UTMB's 'heatwave'.

  

Enroute to CP6, I met a Filipino runner who was living in Germany. Subsequently, we fell into a similar pace on the long climb and ran together until CP7. The estimated time allocation was 2h and we took 20min more than that, which drew down my hard-earned buffer. After working hard on that climb, I now had to continue chiong-ing (rushing) some 6km/ -400m down to CP8.






For me, the toughest and most mental section was between CP8-9 (to the drop bag). It was a vertical 10.7km to Rogue Nublo, +1,200m, and a time allocation of 2h. I thought I should have enough time to clear it. Alas, the zzz monster attacked and I moved oh-so slowly, trying to stay awake. We went higher and skirted many smaller trails to reach The one leading to Rogue Nublo. It is a giant rock protecting the centre of Gran Canaria, and a popular hike for tourists. 

Rogue Nublo standing majestic in the distance

The last section was a surprise as we had to 'deviate' and go up to Nublo and get our bibs scanned. That took an extra 15min up and down before I could continue to CP9. Yikes, it was nearing the CP closing time and I still had a long descent, with the CP nowhere in sight. Watching the minutes tick by, I sprinted as best as I could. My mind raced through what I needed to do at the CP, and decided that I could forego picking up my drop bag. Finally, I made it to the CP within 6min of cutoff. 3h just for that segment. Ouch!

81km done, another 10h to go. With no time to lose, I refilled my soft flask, added some Tailwind, and set off towards CP10, some 12km away. It was dark again, and difficult to go fast. I mistakenly thought that we had to climb to the highest peak in Gran Canaria, and was expecting a vertical onslaught. Then I realised that it was the highest point in the race, and not the island. Mental face-palm. I should better study the race map and profiles next time. It was a long long long descent, a little technical and rocky but fairly runnable. Unfortunately, the CP was far far far away, and by closing time, I was still in the trails. Not wanting to give up, I still gave it a shot and ran hard to the CP. Unfortunately, on hitting town, we still had to circle around to reach the CP. Sheesh, so that was the end of my race. My first DNF of the year. 94km, 23:15h.

Post-race Musings

The extra popiah from dinner
Some thoughts about TransGC. Definitely need to review my nutrition. For those of us pampered by support stations, especially in HK or USA trail races, the distribution and food at TransGC was a challenge. Out of 13 checkpoints, there were four that were 12-13km apart (i.e. 3 – 3.5h from the last station). In addition, there were three drinks-only stations alternating with the food-drinks stations. For example, we had a long climb and descent over 23km and allocated 5.5h to get to a checkpoint with food (there was a drinks station in between). I was also not used to the food. HK typically races have sushi rice rolls, USA races have peanut butter jelly sandwiches, and European races have ham/ salami, cheese and dry bread rolls. Ham and cheese were not to my taste, so I simply had nuts and dry baguette slices, which was not enough. Luckily I had a random fried spring roll in my pack, which was heavenly. The next time that I participate in an European race, I will have to better figure out the food.

On perfect hindsight, I might have overestimated myself and underestimated the race. Reviewing my past races, TransLantau was 100km, +5,500/5,800m, 33h cutoff; TNF Lavaredo was 120km, +5,800m, 30h; UTMB was 170km, 10,000m, 46h. By comparison, TransGC’s intensity (125km, +8,000m, 30h) would be somewhere between Lavaredo and UTMB. Or a TransLantau 100 plus another TransLantau 50 compressed into half the distance (25km with 2,200m gain). Gulp! Would be more mindful of pace and times next time in order to complete TransGC.

Despite the challenging elevation, I think Laverado was more technical in terms of variation (e.g.  ice/ snow, big boulder scrambling), altitude reached, and a scenery typical of ski mountains. TransGC was more runnable and had mixed sceneries, some of which reminded me of SE Asian plantations at times. Anyhow, I am biased. J If one could only pick one race, I would definitely recommend Lavaredo for overall ‘adventure’ and scenery.

So now there is an unfinished business. 😬 Haiz…. Maybe if I review my race strategy, I might be able to complete TransGC. 

A Goal, A Dream




Friday, December 30, 2016

Adventures 2016

2016 has been a good year for races and adventures. Run more, climb more, go further. I am thankful for the many highlights and new experiences. With each step, I learn something more about myself and my limits. Below is a quick recap of my race/ events this year, so many memorable ones. If I had to choose..... it would be my Denali expedition and UTMB race, and signing off 2016 with an ultra-marathon of a lifetime. :) May 2017 be a similar year of growth, good health and adventures. Happy new year!

HK 20th Anniversary Marathon (42km) (17 Jan 2016)
The 20th anniversary of the HK Marathon. We were lucky to register two slots (fast fingers) and run the race together. It was a wet and cold run on race day, and we saw some runners turn around and did not even start the race. 3:57h.
 
HK100 (23 - 24 Jan 2016)
Still my favourite-st 100km race, simply because the HK100 was my maiden 100km undertaking in 2012. The 2016 event saw a freak hail/ice-storm in HK that iced up the last section on Tai Mo Shan, where we slid and skidded our way down the last 5km. A most eventful race. 24:41h. (Race blog)

Marin Ultra (80km) (12 Mar 2016) 
Marin County across San Francisco, where one gets a sweeping view of the Pacific Ocean from the trails. Alas, it was raining the entire day, which brought the temperature a few notches down from the stated 12C. Wet, windy, foggy, chilly. 13:21h.

TNF Washington DC (80km) (9 Apr 2016)
This was a flat course through the Algonkian Park, DC, so I thought my timing should be pretty decent. Alas, it was a wet and cold day. The trails became all muddy and we sloshed our way through the slippery gooey stuff. The race took us along the Potomac River and past the scenic Great Falls, which made the run worthwhile. 12:25h.

TNF New York Bear Mountains (80km) (May 2016)
The Bear Mts course was one of the tougher ones in the TNF Endurance series, with fairly technical climbs and descents and a tight cut-off. I almost did not make it, being the last runner through one of the checkpoints before it was closed. Whew! Finish it, I must! It was also my first time in a technical trail race without using my trekking poles, and I definitely felt it in my knees post-race. 13:27h. (Race blog)

Mt. Denali (6,190m) (14 May - 7 Jun 2016)
One of the highlights in 2016 was definitely my expedition to Mt Denali, the highest peak in N.America (6,190m). It was an experience of a lifetime, I had never had so much snow and ice before. We landed directly on the glacier in full climbing gear, and I had my first trial at sledding my equipment across the snow fields. My 25 days of arctic survival included getting hemmed in by fierce winds and snow and forced to count days slipping by and our summit window narrowing, a 16h summit attempt followed by long descents towards basecamp through the 'night' (for the sun does not really set in summer), and then being stuck at basecamp because the glacier planes could not fly in. Few Singaporeans have climbed this mountain... precious memories.

MR Marathon (42km) (12 June 2016)
Back from NYC in time to run the MR marathon. Alas, cramps set in on the 3rd loop and my placing dropped from 5th to 9th. But it was good fun to be reacquainted with my favourite playground and fellow trail runners. :) 5:00h

TNF Lavaredo, Italy (119km) (24 - 26 June 2016)
119km in the gorgeous Dolomites mountain range & valleys, north-eastern Italy. Total elevation 5,850m. Cutoff time 30h. It was my first attempt at a distance over 100km, and it felt a lot more like a trekking trip than run with all the climbs, river crossings, and some technical descents. The scenery was breath-taking and some climbs fairly brutal. It was also my first time running close to 30h. I remember crossing the finishing line and wondering why I signed up for the upcoming UTMB... Eeeks! 29:33h.

TNF Ontario, Canada (50km) (16 July 2016)
TNF Ontario set in the lovely Blue Mountain Village, a quaint ski town resort area north of Toronto. My most blur race ever. (1) Misread the race elevation profile - change of 3,640m and thought it was gain. Mentally psyched to climb and wondered why we were not at the peak of some hills. (2) Confused by the loops and aid stations and thought I had 10km more to go. So convinced that I missed a turn somewhere, I was prepared to DQ and skip the finisher medal as I crossed the finish line. Then realised that I had misread the aid station distances all along - read the 50mi instead of 50k markers. Ah ha! Oh well, the slight DNF panic during the race made me run... It ended well. 6:56h. 

Laugavegur Trek, Iceland (55km; 2 days) (Aug 2016)
Attempted a solo trek on the famous Laugavegur trekking trail in Iceland. A typical trip would take took 3 - 4 days, and I compressed it within 2 days. It is also the same trail route for the Laugavegur ultra-marathon, so I figured that a fast hiker should be able to cover that distance in 2 days in good timing. I was also lucky to have long summer days up to 9pm, which allowed me to cover more distance each day. I There were four river crossings in fast flowing freezing waters which numbed my toes and threatened to sweep me off sideways. In return, I was rewarded with vast endless nature and beauty which no photos could do justice to. Hearts.

Reykjavik Marathon, Iceland (42km) (20 Aug 2016)
Reykjavik Marathon (20 Aug 2016). After a week of drizzles, the weather cleared up to a nice 13 - 17C, with sunshine along the way. Flag off 8:40am, self-seeded time zones. Icelanders were out in running vests and shorts, soaking in the sun. This is a fairly popular race with Europeans, Canadians and Americans, and I also heard some Cantonese and Mandarin. Pretty strong runners, many were chatting while yours truly was trying to keep pace. The 21km and 42km started together, and split off at 18km. It was relatively packed for the first 5km (though not sardine packed like in other major marathons), and then spaced out after the split. I was happily following the pacers' balloons until they went off with the 21km. Oh well...

The course was largely along the Reykjavik coastline with some gentle rolling slopes and bridges, and a teeny weeny bit of dirt track. We were treated to expansive views of blue waters that touched the blue skies, Mt Esja (highest peak in Reykjavik 914m), the Grotto lighthouse (where wildlife resides), and even a mini "waterfall" feature. I ran alongside an elderly gentleman wearing a "Everest Marathon" vest, who kindly shouted out for me to run on the inner lane; "it's shorter", he said. At the 41km point, he got caught in a random fishing string on the ground and took a slight tumble, but then caught up and overtook me. Inspiration! All in, one toilet break, two Gu gels, three refills of bottle, and a 3:47h time. No BQ, no PB but heaps of blue skies and fresh air.


UTMB, Mont Blanc (170km) (26 - 28 Aug 2016)
THE trail race of the year, 10 year in the making. 170km, 10,000m elevation. From clocking qualifying points from races just to get a chance to ballot for UMTB, to lead-up training races, toeing the start line, experiencing sleep deprivation and hallucination, receiving generous cheers and support from friends, to finally crossing that finishing line.... it was a dream come true. An epic race and experience, difficult to repeat. 44:11h, and maybe the 2nd SGP female finisher. Gasp! (Race blog)

Chicago Marathon (42km) (9 Oct 2016)
Last year, I clocked my PB and BQ timing at Chicago. This year, I decided to run it again to see how I would fare. Chicago is known for its flat and fast timing. The race did not disappoint. I managed to clock a BQ of 3:42h, just 3min within the timing for my age-group. Hopefully this timing will get accepted at Boston 2018. Fingers crossed.

Philly Marathon (42km) (20 Nov 2016)
My second time at the Philadelphia marathon. It was a super windy race day, with wind chill bringing down the temperatures to 0C. At times, there was helpful tail wind, but for most parts, the wind was just blasting in our faces and swirling up leaves and twigs on the ground. 3:48h. 

MR Ultra (12h cut-off) (18 Dec 2016)
Again, I got back to Singapore just in time for the MR Ultra, my final race for the year. It was a nice cool day because of the overnight rain and cloudy skies. I stayed conservative and tried not to over-push so that I would not get cramps. The race went well and I was in the 1st - 2nd lead, until I did a superman spectacular flat-face fall near the Jelutong Tower and suffered a deep cut (two stitches) above my eyebrow. The first-aid and subsequent medical checks cost me a good amount of time and I was lucky to be able to regain a steady pace on the next few loops. Managed a 3rd place with 8 loops (80km) in 11:36h.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Ultra Trail Mont Blanc - UTMB (26 – 28 Aug 2016)

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.


5:50pm. I crossed the street to join the starting queue. Soon, the UTMB theme song “Conquest of Paradise” filled the air. It was a majestic energy-raising piece, grand but not pompous. Then the queue started moving forward. Passing through the UTMB arch, I choked a little, a sudden emotional realisation that this was it. As an average SGP runner standing there, I was humbled, apprehensive, yet proud, all rolled into one. There was no place to run, and nobody was in any hurry either. We walked through the main street, each of us taking in the atmosphere, lost in our own thoughts. Crowds lined the main street and every balcony, cheering and clapping. It took us a good 10-min to clear the street before we could start jogging. Even then, supporters continued to line the trail. And it was to be so throughout the entire race. As long as we were near any refuges or villages/ chalets, there would be people cheering, clanging the cow-bells. Young and old, they stood by as we ran past, offering drinks or encouragement ‘Allez allez, bravo bravo!’, even in the wee ungodly hours of the days. Their presence made the race so much more bearable.

  
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 do 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….