Thursday, August 28, 2014

Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time - Amy's UT4M Race Report

I'll admit it, I make some pretty dumb decisions.  As I look at it, I certainly have adventures in my life, as these dumb decisions often lead to epic adventures.  It turns out, the Ultra Tour des 4 Massifs turned into one giant epic adventure.

I initially signed up for this race when Brian was debating whether to accept his UTMB entry.  His first thought was 'Amy, I don't want to race UTMB if you can't race also', so I quickly found a race in the surrounding area that I could do.  The UT4M was a weekend before, and looked to be a similar style race - so I was hopeful to have a similar European racing experience.  The UT4M offered a 100-ish mile (~160km) race, which was a full loop around the mountains surrounding Grenoble, France.  There was a 50-ish mile (~80km) option that included the 2nd half of the loop.  Since our European trip would be mostly focused on Brian's race, I opted for the shorter, 50-ish mile race.

(Running in the fog, along the first ridge) 
So, on August 23rd, Brian and I walked to the center of Grenoble.  He gave me a kiss and wished me good luck, and I loaded the bus to ride to the starting line.  We were dropped off in the center of a small village, which was the starting line of our race.   Not speaking much French, I sat alone and looked up at the mountains I was about to climb - excited and anxious.

The race started with 2km around the starting village, which was great to sort out the field.  But, quickly enough, we were on trail and headed up the first climb.  The first climb was a total of 8km (~5 miles) long, and had almost 6,000 feet of climbing - that's an average of over 20% grade!  (For comparison, Mt. Washington is 7.6 miles with 12% average grade, and 'the wall' at the end of Washington is 22% grade.)  Needless to say, the entire field transitioned to a power hike as we worked out way up the first climb.  The lower 4km of this climb had an average of 27% grade, so I was 'hands on knees' climbing up the steep switchbacks.  I was slowing myself down due to the pace of folks ahead of me - but hiking in a long train of runners, it wasn't easy to pass.  I just relaxed and followed their pace - reminding myself that there was a long way with plenty of climbing to go.

(Fog obscured most of my views from the early race)

After the first aid station (at 6km), the last 4km of the climb eased up a bit, and was 'only' 14%.  I was glad to stretch out the legs and run on the flatter sections, breaking free from the group I was with.  The trail turned to wider hiking trails that reminded me of New Hampshire, which made me feel more at home.  As we got higher in elevation, we got into the fog layer - and it got tougher and tougher to see where we were running. 

(Beautiful single track in the fog)

At the top of the climb, the fog was so thick that I could barely see my feet, let alone the trail and the course markers as we scrambled across a rocky abyss.  Luckily, in a tricky section, I was directed to follow a fence line that lead to the first big aid station at about 11km.  I entered the aid station, expecting to see the typical aid station offerings, and was surprised to see dark chocolate (the expensive kind, that we would buy at Whole Foods), stinky cheese (again, the expensive kind that I rarely buy), and some salted cured meats.  There was also 'still water', 'bubbly water', and coke.  Where was the Gatorade?  Where was the Swedish Fish and boiled potatoes?  I was at a loss for what would work out of these offerings, so I filled my pack with water, ate some dark chocolate, and was off into the fog.

(Running through the fog)

We descended a short bit, but were still in the heavy fog - it was a challenge to remain on course, and I often found myself running about 5 or 10 meters from the trail.  I would have to correct myself (while I could see the markings), and point myself in my best guess of the direction of the course.  It was slow going and I was constantly re-correcting my route to stay on course.

Once off the top of this climb, the course settled into some amazing trails as it rolled along a ridge.  They were technical and rocky, and I had a blast running through the light fog, again, feeling like I was in the White Mountains.  As we neared the next aid station, we approached a sign that said 'Marche Obligatoire', which the RD had warned us about the day before - we would be crossing a few sheep fields, and therefore there was a mandatory walking section to not scare the sheep.  I was bummed to walk across a completely flat, runnable section, but followed the race instructions as I power hiked along.  I looked around, disappointed that the fog was still blocking any view of the mountains and valleys I was playing in.

(Marche obligatoire signs along the course)

After the 17km aid station, we had another section of 'Marche Obligatoire', and I was annoyed at the runner near me that ignored that and ran through it.  Soon enough, we were running along the technical trails again.  The trail turned up, and we climbed a short but extremely steep set of switchbacks through some rocky, loose terrain.  My hands were on my knees, as I enviously eyed the hiking poles that everyone around me was using.  I was amazed, as I looked down, that runners that were 10 or 15 minutes behind me were at the bottom of this climb - it was that steep and compact.  At the top, we crested the highest point of the race. 

Now, the information provided to me before the race (on the website) had this peak listed as 2,370 m, yet the sign that greeted us there listed the elevation as 2,700 m (I believe, I was looking at it as I ran by, through the fog, so that could be incorrect) and the race banners at the finish boasted that it was 2,926 m.  I was immediately annoyed that the race information provided wasn't correct - and this was a climb not listed on the course profile, but snuck in.  No wonder I felt like I had been climbing the entire race so far!  How frustrating to have a monster peak that wasn't included on the course map.

(New England-esk trails in France)

I pounded the trail out of frustration, as we finally were descending.  Once we were below the fog line, I was pleased to see some incredible views of the mountains surrounding Grenoble, and the valley below - my next destination.  The downhill was fun - it started with a ribbon of single track through a mountain field, with switchbacks to lessen the downhill grade.  The same guy that was running in the mandatory walk section was behind me, and kept cutting the switchbacks on the downhill.  I opened up my stride as much as I could to stay ahead of him - running twice the distance that he was.  Again, I had read the rules before the race, and knew that cutting switchbacks wasn't allowed! 

The downhill eventually lead down to the woods, and it felt like running through the trees in the Whites (or similar to the lower section of descent on Hope Pass).  After a good half hour of that, the trail ended on a dirt road, that turned to a paved road, and I continued to cruise on down.  I felt like I was flying, as I took advantage of the downhill to tick off some easy miles. 

(Typical trail section - technical and fun)

An hour after I started running downhill, I reached the next aid station.  I asked where I was in the course, and was shocked to learn I was only 25km into the race.  My watch read 5 hours...even with that downhill, was I really only averaging 5km/hour?  That didn't seem right.  I refilled my water, downed some coke, and ate some dark chocolate and orange before I continued on. 

According to my course info, the course cruised down another 9km before leveling off for 5km into the next aid station at bout 40km.  This aid station would mark the halfway point of the course.  So, when the course immediately climbed up, I was completely frustrated.  How could the course information be so incorrect?  Was someone messing with me?!? 

(Amazing views from the top of the climbs)

After climbing a few kilometers, the course turned down and I cruised, trying to cover as many kilometers as possible, and trying to make up for my slow average pace.  At one point, I came to an intersection that wasn't marked, and stopped for a minute to check it out.  Not seeing any course markings in any direction, I continued straight along the trail.  After I didn't see any markings for several minutes, I stopped to ask the next runner.  He said that it looked fine and he thought he saw a marker just a minute ago.  So, we both continued down the trail until the next intersection.  We didn't see any markers there, and made the long slow hike back to the turn that we missed.  We wasted about 15-20 minutes on this incorrect turn...and my patience was wearing extremely thin. 

So, we regained the course, and I opened the my stride to take advantage of the downhill.  I caught up to another female runner and we ran together for a bit.  She didn't speak much english, but luckily her running partner did, so we were able to communicate.  I learned that she had accidently missed the first check-point in the race; due to the fog, it was easy to miss the turn along the fence line and pick up the course about 2-3km later.  She didn't know what to do about it, so she figured she would just continue to run.  She was obviously bummed about the mistake, but glad to be out running this challenging course.  We passed the flat miles, and entered the aid station together. 

(Some of the trails were technical, I loved them!)

The 40 km aid station marked the halfway point in the race, and while it had taken me a long time to get here, I was glad to be making progress.  I took out my hydration pack and a volunteer took it to refill it - literally filling it to the top - so I had to pour out water to even close it!  I was amazed, looking around at my fellow runners who were all enjoying a long regroup at the aid station, sitting down to have soup and a meal before continuing on.  In the USA, we are quick through aid stations, so I again noticed the difference in cultures.  My stomach had been bad for a while and I had been pretty poor with fueling, but it was easy to ignore during the downhill miles.  I looked around the aid station for anything that would help my stomach, but finding nothing, I determined to get in fueling and drink plenty of fluids on the next climb. 

The climb here was over 15km long, and climbed about 6,000 feet, so it was another monster.  However, with 'only' an average grade of 13%, it would be milder than the opening climb.  I ran the lower portions, but was glad when the trail turned uphill enough to justify hiking.  Due to my poor fueling, I was pretty low on energy, and unfortunately my stomach was really feeling horrible.  The fact that Brian and I realized the day before my race that our energy drink mix was confiscated by airline security and didn't make it to Europe was really becoming an issue.  I had only brought a bit of energy products (gels and chews) to Europe, I was planning to rely on the energy drink to provide over half my calories for the race.  With the energy products I did have, I didn't have enough calories to compete the race without relying on the aid stations - but with the aid station selections, I was struggling to find anything that would work for me.

(After climbing 2 hours, I learned I would still have to crest the peak shown ahead)
I tried to sip water every 5-10 minutes to slowly rehydrate myself, but it was a slow process.  Whenever I dared, I would sneak in a single Honey Stinger chew, knowing that it was only about 15 calories each, but at least it was something.  I estimated this climb would take me about 2.5-3 hours, and my energy level was so low - I didn't know how I would get up this beast.  I made a deal with myself to hike for half hour, then I could rest for a few minutes before continuing on.  After several hours, the climb leveled out, and we found ourselves in a cow pasture.  I was pleased, thinking that I might be at the top, but unfortunately someone was there to burst that bubble - I would ultimately be climbing to the top of the mountain behind him.  I wanted to cry, I still had a long way to go!
Mentally, I was starting to unravel.  This was much harder than any other 50-miler I had ever done.  I did my best to hold it together, but without familiar faces along the way, with out fellow runners to chat with (because, on the rare occasion I was with one, we didn't speak the same language), and without even being able to understand the encouragement that the rare supporter would shout, I was feeling extremely lonely out there.  I listened to my mp3 player just to hear some english, in hopes that it would bring me some mental company.

(Inside the mountain hut at an aid station)

As much as I was tired, and mentally defeated, I could still run the flats and downhills.  Luckily, there was a bit of both those as I neared the next aid station at 56km.  An aid station volunteer saw my hunched over, defeated appearance, and brought me inside the small mountain hut and next to the fire.  He offered me coke, and warm soup, and took care of me for a few moments as I regrouped.  While I big portion of me was ready to quit, the other portion was trying to continue on.  I looked at my course information, and saw that the next section was about 10km of only downhill - so I hoped that would be some easy distance to cover, and convinced myself to continue on.  I double checked that information with the aid station workers, and he told me that the next aid station was actually 13km away, and there was a huge 2,000 foot climb first before I would descend.  I almost broke down in tears - again, the course information provided didn't include this climb! 

As my eyes started to fill with tears, I tried my best to use my frustration and anger on the trail.  My energy level was limiting this, but at least it felt productive to run the flat sections leading to the next climb.  I was thankful for my solitude as I started the climb, as my emotions were high and my progress was sloppy.  I was stumbling over the loose rocks, as I made my way up the steep climb that was a sheep's pasture.  The sun was starting to set, so I was treated to an amazing sunset over the mountains - this helped my mood a bit.  I almost broke out laughing, as I crested the hill to find a 'traffic jam' of sheep in my path.  I chased them down the trail as they scurried away from me.  Perhaps I was just so happy to be heading down at last.

(The view from the last climb, among the sheep)

As I descended the climb, it became night and I turned my headlamp on.  Luckily, the trail was downhill for a while, and I opened up my stride.  I entered the next aid station at 64km, and looked around at the offerings.  Nothing seemed appealing, so I wandered around like a lost dog for a few moments, before exiting without consuming a thing.  I was so beat, I was mentally defeated, and I wanted to finish this race.  I wanted to hug Brian, and I wanted to cry. 

(Sun setting and Grenoble city lights glowing before I enter night)

The next section had another almost 2,000 foot climb, so I ran the easy bits, and settled in for the last long climb of the race.  I tried to make the same deal with my weary body - half hour of climbing, then I could rest - but I made it about 20 minutes before I spotted the first welcoming rock and sat.  I wanted to cry, I wanted to puke, I wanted to be done.  After regrouping a moment, I stood up, knowing that the only way to get this done was to keep moving forward.  I climbed more, and was extremely frustrated as my 'reactive headlamp' (that is designed to dim when there was ambient light) would nearly turn off every time it caught a reflective course markings - so it left me stumbling in the dark for about 50 meters until I passed the marker. 

At one point on this climb, I ducked under a low tree, and didn't duck enough - I cracked my head on the log, and I cracked it hard.  This was the last thing for my fragile mental state, and it set me off.  I immediately sank the ground, and proceeded to cry.  All the negative thoughts in my head swam around at once - 'I can't do this, this is too hard, I am too weak and not fit enough, I was arrogant to think I could do this, I'm an idiot for signing up for this blasted race...'.  I also had a fair amount of anger at others in my mind - 'the girl ahead of you cut the course while I ran extra kilometers out here, the other runners are cutting switchbacks and running in the mandatory walk sections - they aren't following the rules, there are climbs on this course that aren't on the course information - are they purposely trying to trick the American girl?'.

(The aid station fare - stinky cheese, dark chocolate, and cured meats)

Eventually, I got up and continued on, as tears continued to stream down my face.  My progress was slow, and I stopped often.  But, eventually, I reached the top of the climb, and was treated to an amazing view of the city lights of Grenoble down below.  This dried up the tears a bit, as I finally proceeded down.  Ironically, one of my favorite songs came on my mp3 player, and I laughed out loud, '(Seemed like) A Good Idea At The Time' by OkGo was playing in the perfect moment and captured my feelings exactly.

The tears nearly started again as my light would go off (when seeing the reflective course markings) on the downhill.  I frustratingly played with my headlamp to try to turn the 'reactive lighting' feature off, but couldn't figure out how.  I nearly fell several times as I stumbled through these dark sections of trail before the headlamp would light up again.  At least I was headed downhill.

(City lights below on the last peak of the race)

In and out of the last aid station at 73km, I was so elated that I slapped high five with a runner as I passed through.  I didn't break stride - I wanted to be done!  I did my best to hold it together for the last downhill section, and was pleased to finally reach the bottom of the valley and the bike path surrounding Grenoble.  From there, it was just a few short kilometers to the finish, so I ran with all my heart and all my energy to finish as quickly as possible.  I passed a few runners in that last stretch - just wanting to see Brian.

Upon crossing the finish line, I learned that I had finished 2nd place female and only a few minutes behind the winner (who was the girl that missed the first aid station and several kilometers of the course).  It had taken me over 14 and a half hours to complete the 50+ mile course - a new 'personal worst' for this distance.  However, it was easily the most challenging 50 miler I'd ever completed.  Instead of being proud of my race, I was immediately frustrated with what I accomplished.  I had completely fallen apart out there, and was disappointed in myself for that.  I been handed a series of obstacles throughout this race, and instead of overcoming them with grace and grit, I had completely folded and allowed them to defeat me.  I felt like the biggest failure, as if I shouldn't have even bothered crossing the finish line. 

(The cows and sheep on the course made me smile)

The UT4M race will certainly be one that I remember for a while, and my utter defeat will be a source of motivation as I train for the next adventures.

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