Friday, September 21, 2012

UTMB Gear List and Selections

Let me start off by saying that I have never seen people wear so many layers of clothing in a running event. I thought Portlanders over-dressed, but UTMB'ers took it to a new level.  Racers were bundled up as if about to face severe arctic weather (and we might have, had we headed up over 6000 ft, which we didn't). It was almost laughable, and a wee bit confusing, as it made me question whether I had enough on and had packed enough extra gear for my crew.  I kept trying to remind myself that I've been running in winter weather for as long as I can remember, and would never consider wearing more than a single layer on bottom, even when it's really really cold or really wet. And I never wear more than 2 layers on top, and that usually becomes uncomfortably warm. But, as racers started to panic about weather conditions in the days prior and swarm the Chamonix stores for additional gear, I got sucked in and did the same. 

I found one of the more over-whelming aspects of UTMB preparation in the weeks leading up to it to be figuring out what to carry in terms of mandatory gear. I thought I'd done a good job at keeping things light, until I saw Topher's pack a few days prior to the race.  People put a lot of thought and effort into this, and Topher definitely won the award for research and creativity.

Following is a list of the required gear, and what I opted to go with:

  • Backpack (Not on the obligatory gear list, but obligatory because you have to carry everything on the gear list) 
    • I carried one of the TenRedPacks from UltraSpire. Technically they were green this year, but the name came from last year, when you could follow the ten red packs around UTMB. It's a prototype of the Omega. First, let me start off by saying I really liked this pack--the materials, the construction, the design--all great.  And, I liked it better than any other pack I tried out in prep for UTMB (including the S-Lab 5--stiff and bulky--too much fabric, Ultimate Direction Highline--stiff and heavy, Ultimate Direction Wasp--weird straps causing a weird fit, Camel Bak something or other--uncomfortable fit, Inov8 something or other with odd bladder--uncomfortable bulky straps that hit collarbone/neck), and worn over layers, it worked out very well. I have since worn the pack over a single layer, and I like it, except for the shoulder straps which are fairly widely placed. Better than other packs that cut into the collar bone, but still a touch wide, and tend to slip off the shoulder. Also, there are some issues with the front straps which loosen as you run; the wide shoulder strap issue would be lessened if those front straps would stay put. To prevent them from sliding, I duct taped them into place, and this seemed to work OK. I'll probably permanently sew them at some point, as the duct tape seems to fail on the second or third run. Overall, really like the pack, except for being slightly wide in the shoulders and therefore sliding around a bit, and the (fixable) front strap issue. It's not perfect (but, almost--and can/will be made perfect with a needle and thread), but is my go-to pack for long adventures.  
Checking out the course pre-race with the Ultraspire Omega pack.
On to what had to go inside of that pack...

Obligatory material :
  • Mobile Phone with option enabling its use in the three countries (put in one’s repertoire the security numbers of the organisation, keep it switched on, do not hide one’s number and do not forget to set off with recharged batteries)
    • I purchased a cheap flip phone in France. My Windows phone is dying a slow death, and I feared wouldn't survive the journey (after a recent run, it didn't stop ringing, literally, for several days), besides being a bit heavy and having to pay international rates. 
  • Personal Cup or Tumbler 15cl minimum (water bottle not acceptable)
    • I cut off a juice box--picture a Capri Sun type of thing. Rolled up nicely, worked fine, and I used it for Coke throughout.
  • Stock of Water minimum 1 litre,
    • I carried a 1.5L bladder.
  • Two Torches in good working condition with replacement batteries,
    • Petzl MyoRXP for my main headlamp and a Fenix handheld for my secondary (E11--takes 1 AA battery). I carried one extra battery for the Fenix for the "replacement batteries" 
  • Survival Blanket 1.40m x 2m minimum,
    • Standard. Not much room to be creative here, although some folks will go that extra mile and cut it down to exact size. I didn't bother trying to save those extra thousandths of an ounce.
  • Whistle,
    • Standard small plastic emergency whistle. Not much room to be creative here. Some packs come with them.
  • Adhesive Elastic Band enable making a bandage or a strapping (mini 100cm x 6 cm),
    • Standard...I can not imagine a case, ever, where I would use a bandage mid-run or race, and I've fallen, bled, and broken things on a lot of runs. We were carrying 5000 layers. Surely in an emergency we could have used something out of our required clothing, like the bandana/buff, and made it to an aid station. This was one of those items that makes you ask, WTF? Granted, it weighs next to nothing, so carrying it wasn't really a burden.
  • Food Reserve,
    • I carried ClifShots and a ClifBar or two. Gels started to not go down so well at some point, so for the second half I relied on gummy Haribo Smurfs (not the first time I've relied on gummy things when my stomach is feeling a bit off--they're easier to suck on, thus preventing the gag reflex that swallowing a gel sometimes brings) and Coke at the aid stations. Having a crew meant I could not rely on aid station food, which was plentiful, but not standard fare by US standards.
  • Jacket with Hood and made with a waterproof (recommendation: minimum 10,000 Schmerber) and breathable (recommendation: RET lower than 13) membrane (Gore-Tex or similar) which will withstand the bad weather in the mountains.
    • I carried the MHW Quasar jacket. Great jacket, although I never put it on (I didn't need to--I was warm all night). 

  • Long Running Trousers or Leggings or a combination of leggings and long socks which cover the legs completely,
    • I opted for 3/4 length tights. I also had arm sleeves with me, so they could have covered the lower part of my legs, had they needed to. I had spare long tights in my crew bag. I would have been happy in shorts, too.
  • Additional warm midlayer top: One single midlayer long sleeve top for warmth (cotton excluded) with a minimum weight of 180g (Men, size M)
    OR a two piece clothing combination of a long sleeve baselayer/midlayer for warmth (cotton excluded) with a minimum weight of 110g (Men, size M) and a windproof jacket* with DWR (Durable Water Repellent) protection
    • I wore a short-sleeved half-zip (MHW Aliso S/S zip T) over a long-sleeved half-zip (Arcteryx--purchased in Chamonix when I realized I hadn't brought the "right" long-sleeved layer). I loved both of these, and loved that they were both 1/2 zips so I could control temperature a bit by unzipping one or both of them. The Aliso is a shirt I will wear a lot--it's a great medium-weight SS shirt, and the half-zip option is really nice. And it's a GREAT fit--not cut for a 5'2" woman with large hips, as much women's athletic apparel seems to be. I see this as being my go-to shirt for the rainy Portland fall that is about to hit.
    • I started in a MHW Geist jacket (a wind breaker), and also had a MHW Ghost Whisperer with me. I took the Geist off within about 10 minutes of the start, and only pulled it out again on the snowy part of the course on the climb up above Gorge de la Notre Dame.  Otherwise I ran in the L/S and S/S shirts all night, and never changed. I was warm all night.
  • Cap or Bandana
    • Carried a Buff. Never wore it.
  • Warm Hat
    • I carried a MHW Micro Dome hat. I wore a Turtle Fur tube, that I always wear. It allows my hair to stick out the back/top, which is kind of a must for me. I've worn it on every cold weather run the past decade. 
  • Warm and Waterproof Gloves
    • Waterproof gloves was one of the items I opted to switch out in Chamonix, purchasing the RaidLite over-mitts.  I really think that these are something I may use in the future for snowshoeing, cold-weather adventures, but did not put them on at any time during UTMB. Waterproof gloves, in general, are not something I would ever consider wearing, as I would imagine that they wouldn't be that effective once your hands are warm and sweaty inside of the gloves. The RaidLite mitts are thin enough that I could imagine wearing them as a single layer.  The other water-proof gloves out there resemble oven mitts, and I can't imagine using them for anything besides oven mitts. I wore MHW Power Stretch Gloves and switched those out for the MHW Heavyweight Wool Stretch Gloves at St. Gervais the second time because they'd gotten fairly wet up in the snow. My hands only got cold for a few minutes during the snowy portion, and otherwise, I didn't wear gloves most of the race.  Only for a couple of hours total out of 14.  A glove change was the only change I made all race.
  • Waterproof Over-trousers
    • I ended up carrying MHW Epic pants. This was one switch I made on race day, when I worried that I might need to actually wear them. In the end, I still didn't wear them. I had previously planned to carry O2 Rainwear pants (yellow papery things) bc they were significantly lighter than the MHW ones.  But, I couldn't imagine running in them. In the end, I couldn't imagine running in any of it, and didn't need to.
* The windproof jacket does not replace the mandatory waterproof jacket with hood

Required by the frontier police forces:

  • Identity Papers
    • Well, this became a bit obsolete once they changed the course to remain in France, but I did carry a photocopy of my passport. I didn't want to carry the entire thing bc it weighs a bit, and it's not something you want to get wet.

Very strongly recommended

  • Knife or scissors with which to cut the self-adhesive elasticised bandage
    • Um, nope. I can't imagine using a bandage mid-race or needing to cut one.  
  • walking poles for security on slippery ground in case of rain or snow
    • I used Black Diamond carbon Z-poles and can't imagine doing UTMB without them. I find them very helpful on the steep climbs, and were a life saver on some of the steep muddy descents that were kind of like skiing on mud.
  • a change of warm clothes indispensable in the case of cold weather, rain or injury
    • I had extra clothes with my crew, but never used any of it except switching out wet gloves for dry ones coming through St. Gervais the second time.
  • the sum of 20 euros minimum (in order to cover the unexpected....)
    • I did carry 20 euros but can only imagine needing this if I were doing the full course and having a really rough day (fondue stop at a refuge, etc.).

Advised (list not definitive):

Telescopic sticks, change of clothing, compass, knife, string, sun cream, Vaseline or anti-chaffing cream, needle and thread,...

All clothing must be the runner’s size and without alteration since leaving the factory.
You will carry this material in a pack which must be tagged at the race-bib distribution and is not exchangeable during the race.

If you decide to use poles, you must keep them throughout the whole of the race… It is forbidden to start without sticks and recover them up along the way.
No poles will be allowed in the spare’s bags.


My favorite gear item, besides my L/S and S/S shirts (the perfect combo for the weather--while it was raining much of the night, I either didn't get wet, or it didn't register), were my Black Diamond carbon Z-poles. I loved them for both the ups, and the downs, which were like mud slicks at times (the re-routing caused us to use some TDS trails which meant that there had already been 1500 people or so coming down/up them in the day prior in the pouring rain).

The good thing about having to go through this this year, is that next year I understand where to save weight, and what items worked well this year.  I really wouldn't change much.  I definitely wouldn't add anything. We had "epic" weather and yet I touched basically none of the mandatory gear I wasn't wearing. I likely would have used some of it had we gone up another 3000 feet, but feel like I had enough additional layers with me had I needed them. And everything I have seems to be light enough, in that I don't plan to waste time trying to save an ounce here or there. I'd rather spend that time out hiking up steep climbs in preparation than sitting in front of a computer screen researching UTMB gear options (I seemed to do a lot of that this year). 

The only thing I would change for next year would be on lights, in that I'd have an additional lightweight option to switch out during the day with crew, and then take back a heavier light late on Saturday. You have to carry 2 lights at all times, but there's no point in carrying a heavy headlamp with 3 or 4 batteries all through the daylight hours on Saturday if you a means of switching it out.
On to the race....

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).