Saturday, September 11, 2010

David Ruttum's UTMB Race Report

Close friend of the LPTR family, David Ruttum, was in France for the 2010's his account of the event...

Wisconsin Running Friends,

Thank you for the UTMB well wishes. By now, I am sure you heard about the UTMB debacle. In case you did not read about the event, you can refer to Bryon Powell's as well as my version.

In short, the race was cancelled after just three hours of running due to severe weather. Now, my slightly longer version. I arrived in Geneva, Switzerland on Tuesday 24 August. Geneva is about 1,5h away from Chamonix and at 300m juxtaposed against the foothills of the Alps. My travel books and online enquiries suggested that Geneva was warm in the summer with people swimming in Lake Geneva and sunbathing on the shores. WRONG! Geneva was cold and wet! Cold like in the 40's and 50's with cold, driving rain. First clue that maybe weather might be an issue. I drove to Chamonix on Thursday morning and was heartened to find the Chamonix area bathed in abundant sunshine and warmth. It was one of those blue bird days without any humidity- a far cry from Pittsburgh (and I am sure Wisconsin). Wow, maybe Geneva was just an aberration. Chamonix is a stunning locale. As you stand in the city centre, you are at 1070m and Mont Blanc rises not too far away to 4810m. I have only been in a few places (like Mt Kilimanjaro or Colca Canyon) where the mountains tower so far above the valley floor. I now understand the 19th century European romantic movement that created the term "awesome". Chamonix is awesome! The town has a few thousands year-round inhabitants, but on UTMB weekend was chock-a-block full of runners and their families. I love France because of places like Chamonix. Chamonix lives for the outdoors with world-class trail running, mountain biking, road cycling, mountaineering, kayaking, parapente, etc. at it's doorstep. No one looked at you twice if you were running through town in trail running atire or walking with mountaineering boots and a pack with axes, crampons, rope, etc.  Totally normal. Moreover, I could run and without changing eat amazing French food  al fresco at a beautiful French brasserie without anyone wondering why I smelled and what I was wearing. This little town had everything I love- mountains, mountain oriented people, and amazing food!

Back to the race. I completed the pre-race registration and was thrilled to have my French sister (long story, but my 24yo sister has lived in France for a long time and speaks the language fluently) with me. While the race tried to be international by translating the French into English, Spanish, and German, not everything was translated nor translated well. The UTMB has a list of required equipment (check the website) and at check-in they made sure you had everything. After check-in I went to the "salon" or exhibition area. I have never seen so many ultra running related people together! Think large city marathon exhibition and you can imagine how large this salon was. All the major European and American running equipment companies and hundreds of people representing different races were present. I bought a pair of trekking poles (or batons in French) at the advice of many people (more to come about that) as well as 3/4 length running tights (all the rage in Europe). As an aside, as one American female runner I met put-it, running in Europe is one large "Sausage fest. Like lot's of sausage. Sausage swaying all-over-the-place". Euro's run in spandex and everything is on display. Remember Kilian Jornet in WS100?  Multiply that times 2700 and you can imagine the amount of sausage swaying about during UTMB! Back to the salon, I also managed to get info about hundreds of other ultra's outside the states that I had never heard of. How tempting!

After another Haute Savoie French meal, I went to bed Thursday night eagerly anticipating race day Friday! Uggghhh. Friday morning and it is COLD and pouring rain in Chamonix. I look out my hotel window and see new snow in the mountains above Chamonix. Well, back to bed. Perhaps it will get better? Not a chance. By afternoon the sky was still a dark grey-black melange just waiting to start raining again and the temperature was below fifty. Ugghhh. New snow in the moutains down to about 2000m did not seem great either as we were going to be running up to 2800m. The race was scheduled to start at 1830 so I arrived at the start area at 1730. Bad idea as most of the other runner's and their families appeared to have arrived much earlier. I was forced to move to the rear of the starting pack. The Euro's also love loud music and they kept playing the UTMB theme music. The music was very martial and reminded me of Wagner and his Valkyries. What the hell was I getting into? Nowm back to the trekking poles. Everyone had them attached to their pack and most people had the sharp end pointed up. As most Euro's are shorter than me, it seemed like they all wanted to strike me in the eye. Next time I am wearing clear glasses. My ophthalmologist father would have had a fit.

The MC was energising the crowd of thousands of spectators. Seriously, the first few miles of the race had thousands of spectators lined behind the barricades. I felt like I was in the Tour de France as the riders move through the crowds with everyone cheering them on in a litany of languages. The start was an oxymoron in that I did not get to actually run for about 15 painful minutes! The elites up front took off and then everyone else was allowed to move. Because there were so many people in front of me and the roads are narrow it took about 15min before I could run. When I say run, I really mean trotting around thousands of Euro's holding sharp objects that want to stab me.  I managed to get stabbed in the legs and abdomen four times in the first hour alone! After the first half an hour, the skies opened and it rained hard for the rest of the three hours of running too. This made the course even more treacherous as the first three hours had many sections of wet, muddy grass singletrack. After about an hour of trying to move beyond the masses, I gave up. There were simply to many people in front of me to make much of a difference. I would have to settle into their pace and wait until they slowed down to get into my rhythm. Unfortunately this was a disastrous plan as the first two hours were mostly uphill and the last hour mostly downhill. The downhill destroyed my quads in that the Euro's put the brakes on and forced me to do the same. You guys know that I love to bomb the downhills and somehow this is easier on my quads. Well, putting the brakes on every few seconds really wrecked my quads. Not good.

At around three hours I started cruising into Saint Gervais, 21km, and was thinking dark thoughts. It was cold, pouring rain, my quads ached, I was running too slow and not at my own rhythm, and I was surrounded by Euro's that wanted to stab me. Yikes. I really needed to see my sister (crewing for me) to get my hopes-up and start thinking positive. Well, that sure-as-hell did not happen. I arrived to Saint Gervais and witnessed utter chaos. Thousands of people were milling about the aid area and no one was running. What the hell? Luckily, my sister was waiting at the entrance of the aid station and told me the race was cancelled? Again, what the hell? Cancelled? Did I just hear that correctly? The MC was chattering in lightening French and I had no idea what he was saying. My sister translated that the race was cancelled because of severe weather. Apparently, that rain that I saw in Chamonix was, as I suspected, snow in the mountains. It had snowed so much that a few huge avalances had covered the higher points of the trail at Col de la Seigne and Col Bonhommie (both over 2500m). Beyond the course being covered in avalance debris, there were white-out conditions, and the ever-present danger of further avalanches. I was devastated. Cancelled? Oh-my-god. Like a crack addict I started thinking about how I was going to get my next running high. Turns-out others acted like me and all of the runners started commiserating with one another. In hindsight, this was the beauty of the race- thousands of people from different countries getting together to celebrate what they love best- mountain running. The race organisers put together a colossal effort and repatriated all of us cold, wet, hungry runners back to Chamonix about midnight. I then stayed-up until 0300 talking to other runners and commiserating the lost opportunity.

I awoke at 1100 the next day to clear albeit cool weather. My sister and I went to get lunch and were mystified as to why people were surrounding the start/finish area. Turns out that the race organizers decided to create a reprise, abbreviated even. The organisers text messaged "everyone" at 0700 that a 98km event was going to start in Courmayeur, Italy (about 30min away from Chamonix) at 1000. Well, the organizers never managed to get the message to any American phones.  While only 300 out of 2700 runners did the reprise event, the Americans that ran were all sponsored by French companies and were notified by them. Even Geoff Roes, sponsored by Montrail, never got the message so did not run (I met him on Sunday, he is very down-to-earth and likeable). This disappointment was yet another strike. Ugghhh. Fortunately, I rallied my spirits and at that moment recognized that I was feeling what I had heard other ultra runners describe: feelings of unfinished business. Yes, I now have unfinished business at UTMB and will definitely return next year! I sincerely hope that they will allow everyone from this year's event to automatically be allowed to run next year.

After the cancellation, I ran for a few hours everyday and then enjoyed the European life of long lunches and dinners without doing anything too stressful. Okay, I will be honest, I ran for many hours everyday and covered huge amounts of vertical. In the ten days of running after the event, I logged 40+ hours and 20,000m of climbing.  Very fun. The European trails are much steeper than anything I have run in the western mountain states in USA. Karl Meltzer agreed that the trails in Chamonix were steeper than anything in Utah and used poles for the race too (he said he also used them at Hardrock).

Running is always an education. I learned how to channel my disappointment and remember that I run to make my life better and not to disappoint me. I put things in perspective and never let UTMB ruin and otherwise fantastic trip. I will be back next year and have a blast!

As for the event itself. Next year I will:

Get to the starting line at least two hours early so that I can start
in the front and be able to run my own rhythm
Bring warmer clothes
Wear glasses so that I do not get stuck in the eye with a pole
Do more leg strengthening training so that I am even stronger next year 
Remember to always have fun

So, all-in-all, a great even, but not as I planned. I am now letting the legs rest from their beating in the Alps and am strategising for Grindstone 100 on 1 October. After that I will rest again for Ozark 100 on 6 November. I asked my work for the week of Thanksgiving off so I am hoping to get back to Wisconsin in late November. I will let you guys know when I return so we can run!

Thanks again for the support. I really appreciate everyone thinking about me!


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