Sunday, December 9, 2012

Better late than never? UTMB: The Race that wasn't...

In posting the Synchro-Blog piece last week, I realized I had never finished/published my UTMB race report.  OK, maybe I hadn't forgotten, but it seemed so negative when I wrote it that I hesitated putting it out there.  But, it's how I was feeling at the time, and I like to do things chronologically, so in order to move on to happier topics, like my favorite "The Year in Bad Self Portraits" or talking about plans for 2013, and to move on, it's getting posted even though it was 3+ months ago.  Just to warn you, this is going to be somewhat of a gripe-fest.  If you want to read a positive account of the UTMB experience, I'll send you to Meghan's blog.

So, onto the race. Where I last left off (well, a few entries ago) we were rerouted.  So, rather than run around Mt. Blanc through 3 countries, the revised course would remain in France, running up and down the valleys around Chamonix.  This came after the announcement on Thursday that the race would go on as planned without a course change, and thus after we'd all wrapped our heads around the idea that this was going to be an epic weather adventure. So, we then receive a text on Friday, middle of the day, that the race would be delayed 30 minutes to start around 7 pm and would be at least 100K staying in France and keeping us below 2000m.  OK, time to wrap our heads around an entirely new scenario. I was trying to be flexible, but like many, was not very excited by what was about to be our reality--a much shorter and faster night run through the rain and mud.

A 100K race starting at 7 pm in the rain/snow--oh boy.  Anyone that has ever run a 100K starting at night in crappy weather can tell you what that means: tunnel vision on a muddy trail in the dark. No views, no "journey" around Mt. Blanc, just a lot of running around in France, to seemingly having us zig and zag to get us to 100K (+). UTMB is a course that is known for spectacular beauty--a 10 on a scale of 10, and the same on the scale for difficulty. That's why I was there--for a difficult challenge in a stunning environment.  If I'm going to suffer, I want to do it in a beautiful place. The replacement course was not beautiful, at least not in the dark. It very likely would have been scenic had it not been dark and foggy, but the only real view we got was of the muddy trail in our headlamp beams. UTMB is known for being tough, and while the replacement course was not beautiful, it was still tough.

Meghan and I before the start.
The race started around 7 p.m. in the festive style that UTMB and apparently many European races are known for, with throngs of people lining the streets, complete with a jumbo-tron and video/music.  They let the "elites" start in the front of the field, so we lined up behind the start with a mob of folks behind us.  Knowing that folks traditionally go out fast, and knowing that the mob was behind us and not in front of us, I just hoped to not get trampled. The race started in the frenetic manner I expected and there was at least one fall at the start, as we all kind of hopped around trying not to run over the downed runners in that first block. But, in general getting out was fairly easy (so don't try to tell me that UROC needs an "elite" start when UTMB does just fine 25 times as many runners).   I was soon running with people I knew (Krissy, Rory, Gary) but quickly stopped to pee behind a parked car in town, hoping that it was slightly less rude than peeing in the crowd at the start line, which I had considered. I was still in a crowd, but Europeans don't mind nudity, right?  I quickly caught back up with my group, and felt like I was cruising comfortably through the first few miles that take you along a gravel path next to a road .  The path rolls, but is more or less flat-ish with more down than up. Understandable why the first splits at UTMB are always so fast--the first section is fast, in a race where many of the climbs are at grades un-runnable to the mortals. The revised course shared the first 24 miles with the real course, so we'd at least get a flavor of the UTMB course.
The revised UTMB course. There were more climbs in there than are indicated on the map, I believe. The last section  in reality didn't seem to match the map we were given.
The first climb started and Topher and Gary both blew by me at hiking speeds I couldn't match. In general, I felt good on most of the climbs, but the first one I struggled to find a rhythm.  Rory passed by, too, along with a few other females. I started to feel good again once we started the descent into St. Gervais, although the descent was fairly slick on wet and muddy grass, and I depended heavily on my poles for balance.  St. Gervais was the first big aid station and it was a bit of a mob scene, so I tried to get into and out of the tent as quickly as possible.  Unfortunately I hadn't explained this to my crew, who kept trying to (sweetly) offer me a blanket to warm up with. I was generally warm, and just trying to get through the mob scene as quickly as possible. In hindsight, I never even looked at the food offerings, and only took water and coke from aid stations so have no idea what culinary delights awaited had I stopped.  Cheese and sausage, from what I've read, but I stuck to my usual ClifShot diet.

While they did dramatically change the course, they did keep us on the real UTMB course up past Les Contamines, where we would eventually turn off after Notre Dame de la Gorge on what is the first really big climb of the real UTMB. We would turn off around 6200 feet in the modified version, whereas the UTMB course continues to climb up to 9000 feet.

The text that came Friday, announcing the course change stated that the course would be at least 100K. It didn't specify, but I assumed it would be around 100K. Eh, wrong.  I found this annoying as the race unfolded and it became evident that the course was actually closer to 110K. It's nice to start a race knowing the distance you're about to run. Otherwise, you get to the second-to-last aid station and naively ask, "15K to go?" And hear the response, "No, actually 25K to go."  Me, "WTF?"  We'd already made the mental shift of running 168K to 100K, and these additional shifts were just adding insult to injury.  My thought at the last aid station upon hearing this news was, "Let this crappy half-ass course be over with."  When you're what you believe to be 9 miles away from the finish of the race, and then they tell you that it's actually 15, it's a bit deflating.  After hearing that news, the hardest part of the race for me was the last section from the last aid station to the finish.  It was finally light, but this section of the course was not scenic, and was sort of flat-ish and rolling back into town, and had been traversed by the previous races so was a slop-fest. And a bit unexpected in that I had assumed the distance to be closer to 100K. I know, I complain about not getting to run 100 miles and then complain that they made us run more than 100K.  Again, it's just nice to know up front how far you're racing.

Overall, I felt like I rolled with the punches, and did my best to make the most out of what was not ideal. It's hard to compare the actual results to what would have happened had we gotten to run the full course.  The event we ran was not UTMB. I'm not sure what the finishing rate was, but it was high compared to what the usual UTMB finishing rate is.

Being that I don't regularly compete against most of the women in this race, it's a little hard to judge finishing place/time, but comparing my finish to the other US women, I'm not unhappy. Rory has had a great year, with her 2nd place finish at Western States, but I'd say for the most part, any one of that group of 5 could come out on top (or bottom) on any given day. I ended up 15 minutes out of 5th place, which is only significant in that the top 5 women are considered podium (top 10 for men), and I really had hoped to break into the top 5 (what can I say, I wanted a cow bell). And I'm getting pretty good at nailing the F8 position, with two F8s at WS the past 2 years and an F8 here. I hope it's not fate (feight).  The top US women ended up:

4. Rory Bosio (13:43:10)
8. Me (14:13:35)
12. Meghan Arbogast (15:14:25)
14. Krissy Moehl (15:25:57)
17. Helen Cospolich (15:57:36)

The organizers still managed to provide us with around 18,000 feet of climb (per Jill Homer's data) over 68 miles (according to my watch--Jill had 67).  So, while the climbs were not as long, they were still plentiful, and steep.

I can understand why the course change happened, but after having trained all summer, and having taken a week off of work, I really wanted to do a little more than run around on steep muddy trails in the rain. I'm from Oregon. I can do that basically any night I want to for 9 months of the year. However, the race organizers did their best in what was just crappy luck.  Seriously, the chances of having 3 years of bad weather in a row can't be that high.  And the window of crappy weather was pretty incredible, as it was beautiful in the days leading up to the race, and was gorgeous again, just following the race.

I was encouraged by the fact that the climbs really didn't seem that bad. Yes, they were steep, but I was prepared. Granted, we didn't do the major climbs that come in UTMB, but what we did do seemed completely doable. Folks say you can't train for the steepness in the US, but that really isn't true, at least not in Oregon. We've got steep climbs here, too.  I did a training run in the Gorge with 10,000 feet of climb in 30 miles with just 2 climbs.  Our race was 20,000 feet of climb in 68 miles.  I was definitely prepared for that and not completely wiped.  I wanted the real deal.

Will I go back?  Yes. I loved what I saw of the course, and can't wait to do the entire thing.

I wanted to suffer; I wanted to deserve time off afterwards; I wanted to struggle up climbs, and be so sore that I couldn't walk for a several days.  Instead, we were offered a modified course, such that my quads weren't even sore.  18,000 feet of climb in 68 miles, and my quads were happy.  My quads were SO ready, damn it!  I may have finished the route that was UTMB this year, and received a UTMB finishers award, but I haven't run UTMB.  I will be back, assuming that I can get in.

Seems to be the year of shitty weather and 8th place finishes in 100 mile trail races for me. I'm sick of finishing 8th in big races.  Like at WS, I wanted top 5 here. Here I was 15 minutes back, which isn't much in a race that lasts 14 hours, and had I had any idea where I was I can definitely think of a few places where that time could have come from. I had super slow aid station transitions. They were pretty much self service, and I struggled to get my bladder filled and gear re-adjusted on more than one occasion.  I came into Les Contamines in 5th the second time through, and left in 8th or 9th.  I wasn't hanging out in the aid station; it was all just kind of clumsy and I hadn't given my crew any instructions that could have helped in speedier transitions. Next year I'll have a better idea of what the aid stations are like and can plan on how to transition through them more quickly.  I really hate wasting time at aid stations.

All in all, the trip was a fun one, but the UTMB experience left me in a severe funk.  To put so much time/energy into preparing for one race knowing that you can completely beat yourself up and then have an off season to relax/recover, and then not have that race really happen was frustrating. I came back to the states, with my legs feeling fresh, and feeling fit, but mentally feeling like I wanted to be done with training. However, being in shape, and having many great fall ultras to choose from, I opted to jump into 2 additional races: Cuyamaca 100K in San Diego, and Pinhoti 100 mile in Alabama.  Suffice it to say that I half-heartedly attempted Cuyamaca, and dropped after going off course. Just was 100% out of it mentally.  Complete 2012 burnout, so decided to take the rest of the year off of racing. My work helped with that decision, as well, as it turned into an insanely busy fall, with many late nights and a 3-week trip to Iraq in December to ensure I couldn't register for TNF or Hellgate.

I'm feeling rested, and have started jumping back into training the past month. Nothing crazy, but I've had a couple of 70 mile weeks, and am trying to notch it back up, although running in Iraq isn't that much fun (it's safe where I am, but running draws major attention and the stares/honks/smog make it not my favorite place to run, besides the fact that I can only run out on the streets early in the morning, which is not my forte, unless I want to run loops around the apartment complex, also not my forte), so my weekly totals have dipped back into the 40s and 50s.  But, I'm healthy, and excited for a pretty awesome 2013 schedule, with at least 3 international trips for races, and another few exotic locales thrown in for work.  2013 is going to be a busy one, and I hope to be able to race at a high level a bit later in the year next year for some late-season key races, so am hoping this downtime will leave me hungry enough to do so.  And UTMB is one of the races on my list for 2013.  I want to circumnavigate that damn mountain!

Many thanks to our wonderful hosts and to the fun group with which we shared the house in Megeve.  Outside of the actual race experience, it was really a fantastic week.  And to Montrail Europe for all of their assistance during the race.  I hope to see you all again in Chamonix in 2013.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Syncro-Blog: Pandora's Race: Getting sucked into the Ultra Cult

I would guess that many of us entered the ultra world thinking, "I'll just sign up for 1 race."  I know that I did when I first signed up for Mountain Masochist 50+ back in 2006.  And I can very clearly remember the parking lot scene prior to a Signal Nob trail run--one of my first with my new-found group of crazy trail running friends--where Keith Knipling stated, "I'm not doing any more 100s--they're stupid."  That was shortly after he and his dad, Gary, had completed the Grand Slam, and I just assumed that Keith was serious (he went on to run at least 5 more 100s over the next 8 or 9 months including 3 in back-to-back weekends, and both versions of TWOT, which only true nutcases ever finish). And I can remember thinking at the time (fall 2006) that 50 miles was enough. I'd do it once, and then return to my normal life. I had no desire to try 100 miles; 50 seemed like punishment enough.  And I can distinctly remember finishing that first 50 and saying, "That was stupid. I will never do this again."  Yet, somehow I ended up in Wyoming 6 months later at the start line of the Bighorn 100. My first 100 was a disaster--I tried unsuccessfully to drop for 50 miles, and still wish I would have dropped rather than have finished, but that's another story.  But I'd definitely been bitten by both the ultra and 100 mile bugs. 100 miles is not my favorite distance (I prefer 50 miles, or my favorite distance, 100K), but somehow much of the past 6 years of my life has been consumed by training for and racing 100 milers.  My non-running friends have described the Ultra scene as a cult.  You get sucked in and never find your way back out.  So what's the danger of getting sucked in?  Obviously each individual is different, but getting sucked into the ultra cult has influenced my life in some significant ways.

In no particular order:

Ultra running can be an all-consuming hobby. I like to think that I used to be more well-rounded.  In my pre-ultra life, I could list off a multitude of interests and hobbies. I used to take language classes, salsa dance several times a week, cook, bake, knit, read, take stained glass classes, tango, yoga, biking etc.  I still claim to do many of those things, but I now bake bi-annually rather than weekly; I go salsa dancing once every 6 months; and I joined a book club to force me to finish a book once a month. And most of my non-book club reading has to do with running, in the form of blogs or running magazines. I've become a great conversationalist about running, but maybe not about much else, outside of my job.  Training to compete at the level I want to compete at takes up much of my time outside of work hours. If I'm going to show up at the start line of a 100 miler, I want to feel prepared, and like I can race it. For me, that usually means running around 70 miles a week, trying to hit 80 -  100 miles in my biggest weeks, with a somewhat constant guilt complex for not doing more and feeling undertrained. Add in a yoga class or two, and that means that most of my spare time is taken up by running.

It's affected my career decisions.  I work in the international development field, and before I got into trail running, I intended to go back overseas within a couple of years of arriving in DC (2004). My reason for not trying to get a field position is more complicated than just running, but a large part of it is because I wouldn't want to be somewhere where I couldn't run trails, or potentially run at all (an overseas posting with my current organization would not be taking me to Europe, or an international location with a similar ultra scene...think Juba or Kabul).  A career has never been that important to me, though, and it's become fairly apparent that I'm more passionate about running than I am about my day job, so I guess it's not surprising that my desire to keep training and competing at a high level has encouraged me to stay state-side in the forests of Oregon.

I've moved cross country partially because of trail running. That is not to say that the ultra scene isn't alive and well (better, even) on the east coast, but I'm a sucker for really tall trees, mountains, moss and ferns, and I feel at peace running on the wet trails of the PNW.  I moved cross country to live in a place of amazing natural beauty, primarily because the thought of calling those PNW trails home was too good to pass up.

It's affected relationships. My non-running friends have commented (jokingly, but it's partly true), that they lost me to ultrarunning. I had a core group of non-running friends before I started ultrarunning. But once I started spending most of my weekends running with new ultrarunning buddies, I wasn't definitely absent more than present with my old circle. And while dating/relationships have never been my forte, I've definitely had some relationships end (or never get off the ground) because of my running.  Although I guess if a partner can't support my passions, then maybe ultrarunning has been a good screening test for duds.

Getting sucked into the ultrarunning "cult" has obviously not been without effect.  And the question remains as to why I keep doing it when the goal of it is to run races that are potentially not going to be a lot of fun.  I hated my first 100 miler. I had a miserable time, and was not proud of my finish.  Maybe that's what motivated me to run my second 100--to prove to myself that I could figure out the distance. But in subsequent races, I think I've learned that you never really figure out the distance, and maybe that's part of the intrigue and is why, 6 years later, I'm still planning my life around 100 mile races. There is something about the unpredictability of the journey that is 100 miles, that has a real draw.  You know going in, that you're going to suffer, and that there will be highs and lows, and that you won't know what those will be until you face them; there's something about that uncertainty that is really quite appealing.  Or at least it must be, otherwise, why do we do it?

Some ultrarunning friends' thoughts on the topic:
Jen Benna
Dominic Grossman
Katie DeSplinter
Jimmy Dean Freeman