Wednesday, September 12, 2012

UTMB: The lead-up

Even though the weather gods have shat upon UTMB the past 2 years, who would have thunk that they would decide to dump the mother load on the race for a third year in a row? Not I, and I certainly didn't pack for it, as I stressed over finding the lightest gear possible to take on the challenge. I can remember telling Byron (MHW/Montrail) several times, "I don't need to wear the waterproof pants, I just need to carry them," as I looked for the lightest possible option (on this point, I'll still argue I was right...I cannot imagine ever wearing waterproof pants to run in, even after the weather we got at UTMB).  It was gorgeous for the days heading into the race and gorgeous the days following, but the weather gods decided to unleash their fury in a short 48-hour window to affect all 4 of the 2012 races (PTL, TDS, CCC and UTMB).  And while the event organizers and racers rallied to embrace what mother nature threw our way, it was a major disappointment to not be able to truly experience UTMB.

Full disclosure.  When I pictured myself running in the Alps, this is what I imagined.  I pictured myself frolicking through grassy alpine meadows throwing my arms into the air and breaking out into song, at least once, kind of like the dude in the video (but slightly more gracefully and probably with much less vibrato).

There was no frolicking or singing, not even in my head.

I haven't blogged in weeks (er, months), so I'll summarize my summer quickly. My training post-Western States went well. I jumped back into running 10 days after WS with a flat road marathon (a PR--woohoo! although my marathon PR is still pathetic at 3:04--my previous PR being my marathon split from the World 100K at 3:06).  Not super fast, but reassuring that my quads, which felt like they died at WS, were still alive and ready to jump back into training. Here are Daniel and I at the finish of the Sauvie Island Flat--held on the 4th of July. The main motivation for running the race was to have an excuse to sport patriotic attire including bunhuggers (and to hang out with my friend, Daniel, visiting from DC).

I wussed out on the body paint, but figured the tanlines were good enough representation of red and white stripes. Daniel was definitely a hit, and I met someone the next week, who remembered me as, "That girl that was running the marathon in her underwear."
I quickly ramped back up from 0 the week following WS to 70 miles and then a couple weeks in the 80s before a rest week and then hit 100 and 90 mile-weeks, which for me, are big weeks, before a 3-week taper. Some highlights of my long training runs were a St. Helens circumnavigation with "the boys" and a double Defiance, which is probably as good as it gets nearby for UTMB training--2 trips up Mt. Defiance, one from the back (Wyeth Trail) and one from the front (Defiance trail) resulting in over 10,000 feet of gain in 30 miles. There were some other memorable training runs, including a weekend in the Shenendoahs with the Keiths, a South Sisters summit with Oregon running buddies, and downhill repeats at Willamette Pass, my new favorite workout (it involves riding the gondola to the top and then running down and repeating as many times as desired--I did it 2 weeks out, so opted for 5 repeats or 11 miles downhill with about 8000 feet of descent).  Overall, I got in some of my highest mileage weeks ever, and more climbing/descending than normal.  I spent a fair number of lunch hours hiking uphill at 24% on the treadmill.  I wasn't putting in 130 mile weeks out of a yurt (watching this video made me feel like a complete slacker), but I did what I could and my quads felt ready to go.  I was feeling fairly tired on my last big week, and managed to fall 4 times that week, so opted for a good 3-week taper, and really backed off the final 10 days.  I felt great heading into it and was excited to see just how impossible this UTMB thing was, and why so many norteamericanos seemed to be humbled by it.

Me and the boys on a St. Helens circumnavigation. The summer included lots of fun long runs including this 33-mile classic PNW loop.

The group on top of South Sisters. Good practice in using poles, and 2 good falls to remind me that I'm clumsy (note: the carbon Black Diamond Z-poles are delicate, and will shatter if fallen upon).
I arrived early enough to head to Courmayeur, Italy (roughly the half-way point on the UTMB course) to spend some time with the Gaylords and see part of the descent down into Courmayeur on Sunday afternoon, and the climb up out of Courmayeur to Refuge Bertone on Monday morning.  Topher had suggested I climb the couple hundred of feet on the other side of Bertone so that I could look down the valley on the other side and take in the views. In a hurry to get back down to breakfast in Courmayeur and start indulging in my pre-race pastry taper plan, I opted to skip out on his suggestion thinking, "I'll save it for race day--it'll be even more special that way." He described that section of the trail as the beginning of the part which mimics the coastal trail in the Marin Headlands--rolling and runnable with amazing views (the apline'y meadow portion with big Alp'y mountains in the background where I planned to sing the Sound of Music theme song loudly).  Both the descent down into and climb out of Courmayeur were steep, but they didn't shock me. They weren't too unlike parts of climbs I'd trained on, and while I was glad to see them to get an idea of what I was in for, the whole thing still seemed doable.

What we should have done....Instead, we turned right at La Balme (39 K pt on this chart).

On Monday I headed back to Chamonix to meet up with Meghan and head out to Megeve, where we would be staying with our hosts, John and Sheila Catts, and additional guests, Bruce, Karen, Karl and Erika. John and Erika were to run TDS, while Meghan, Karl and I would be running UTMB. Megeve was lovely and peaceful; a nice quiet reprieve from Chamonix, where there were just a few too many achievement shirt and spandex-sporting runners milling about to put one at ease.

As luck would have it, these were the views in the days leading up to (and following) the race. UTMB seems to be cursed.  
Things started to look grim early in the week, as the forecast called for rain beginning on Wednesday or Thursday and lasting through Friday. Even though we knew the bad weather was coming, there was still hope, as the weather on Wednesday was summer-like and Meghan and I got out to tour a bit of the course near Notre Dame de la Gorge.  We were in shorts and t-shirts, and sweating, so it seemed possible that the weather forecast could be wrong, and that the current weather would hold.

Meghan and I checking out the "course" near Notre Dame de la Gorge.  We weren't actually on course, but did find a steep technical climb that resembled parts of the course. Warm and sunny!  
In the end, things took a turn for the worse, and what seemed grim earlier in the week, would have been ideal. But the earlier forecast for rain, turned to snow and heavy winds, with predicted temperatures and the snow line moving lower and lower as Friday approached.

Erika and John began TDS on Thursday morning, and we got updates from Sheila (who was out crewing for John and Erika) about how bad things were out on the course. It rained incessantly, and things continued to look grim for our start on Friday evening. We received a text stating we'd need to carry more layers. But, the show looked like it would go on, as a statement made at the press conference on Thursday afternoon insisted that the race would go on as scheduled on the original course. Runners panicked, and Chamonix retailers benefitted from a rush on purchasing additional layers. I tried to wrap my head around the idea that we would be heading up into what might feel like a blizzard at 9000 feet (10 cm of snow with wind gusts up to 70 km/hr and temps that would feel like -10C). I like to think that I like extreme weather, and was even excited about the idea of really miserable conditions. Might as well make an epic race even more so.

However, the race officials deemed it unwise to send 2500 runners up into a blizzard, so around noon on Friday we received another text stating that the course would be changed, keeping us in France at lower elevations, with total climb of about 6000 m (20,000 ft) over 100 km.  So, we wrapped our head around this news, totally bummed out by the realization that we basically would be going for a night run on a cold rainy night with zero views of the Alps.  Really, with zero views of anything, except the tunnel vision of the trail in your direct headlamp beam that comes with racing at night, made even worse by the fog, when you literally can't see much of the trail even. Wait, can't we Oregonians do that on any night for about 9 months of the year?

To be continued....(In an effort to at least get part of this out before Christmas, I'll stop here, and continue on soon, I hope).


Olga King said...

Before Christmas??!! You're kidding, right? You're in recovery, start working on your writing projects! Nice photo of you and Meghan, love the green packs with green mountains in the back view.

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