Wednesday, September 3, 2014

It Ain't Over Till It's Over - Brian's UTMB Race Report

Race morning, I woke up at our campsite outside Chamonix around 7:00AM; a long time from the 5:30PM start.  Amy and I went to registration the day before and the free Chamonix Parking Lot was full by 9:00AM.  It was absolute chaos the day before, after 20 min of driving around I finally found a spot...well, sort of.  I had to wedge my car next to an R.V. and another car.  With the parking so close, I had to climb over to the passenger seat just to get out.  The lot was full of R.V’s and vehicles jammed in every available spot.  The scene in the lot was all about Mont Blanc; pudgy tourists getting ready to ride the lift up to Mount Blanc, mountain climbers getting ready to climb Mount Blanc, and ultra-runners getting ready to run around Mount Blanc all crowded the lot. 

After the anxiety of the day before, we actually got a parking spot in the lot with no problem.  I set up my thermarest in the back of the packed rental car and tried to rest as much as I could before the race, which equated to watching 2 Lord of the Rings movies; a good way to kill 8 hours. 

We walked over to the start around 4:00PM and it was absolute insane.  I never saw so many people crowding around the start of a trail race and the loud French announcer’s voice boomed over the crowd.  We found a place as out of the way as possible and sat down and I tried not to think about all of the energy around me.  Finally around 5:00PM they performed the race briefing, this was probably one of the shortest I ever heard before.  Essentially they said there are course markers out there, follow them.  It gets cold at night so be careful.

(Brian and Neal among the mass of starters)

Around 5:15PM I snuck under the start banner and worked my way a few rows back in the corral.  I saw Neal Gorman and Keith Knipling.  I headed towards them excited to see a familiar face in the crowd.  About 10 minutes before the race it started to rain and continued into an absolute downpour. Time clicked by the rain increased, the music and the French announcer got louder and helicopters circled the start.  Finally the countdown to the start and the mass of people start moving.  Insanity broke loose as we were running through the narrow streets of the town lined by people and barricades.  It is hard to stay upright with the rain slicked streets and the packed crowd.  I slap some hands of the spectators as I run by trying to take in the experience.  I see Anton to the right of me, and then a helicopter flies over head, is this really happening. 

 (Brian and Neal, starting)

I look for Neal in the crowd and I spot him by his bright yellow Solomon shoes.  We run relatively close together for the first 8k or so with me pacing off the bright shoes.  We run out of town and onto a dirt road with a few small hills before we get to the first climb.  Runners are streaming by me like I am standing still as I exit the dirt road onto the pavement as we enter Les Houches.  Jeremy Humphries spots me in the crowd and politely introduces himself.  We run together into the town until the road turns up onto the first climb and then he drops me. 

I can still see glimpses now and then of Neal’s yellow shoes up in the distance ahead of me.  The first climb is steep with about 1000m of gain so I start hiking.  I keep filtering back as people stream by me.  I figure I am in about 150th.  The rain keeps pouring down and I am absolutely soaked.  The pack I am wearing with the mandatory gear gets heavier and heavier when everything in it gets soaked with water.  Now I feel like I am dragging 10 lbs. up the hill.

(Runners start the race in a downpour, that would continue for several hours, photo by

I start to near the top of the climb and Dakota Jones passes me and pulls on his rain jacket.  I figure if Dakota is doing it, it must be a good idea so I follow his lead.  Before the race I had the genius idea to attach my race number to front straps of my pack.  Turns out this was a stupid idea.  I have a hard time unbuckling the pack with the number on the straps, I finally get the pack off and it dangles from one arm as I try and fish the rain jacket out.  As the pack is dangling 2 of the 4 safety pins that hold it on rip out of the number.  I throw the jacket on and then the pack and have a hell of a time trying to get it bucked again with the number flapping in my face.   Dakota is now gone, he was much smoother with the pack/jacket transfer.

I crest the hill and start down and the decent gets steep fast.  The hill is a ski hill and you have to run right down the wet slippery grass.  I baby it down the hill and people continue to stream by me. 
I run into the next town of Saint Gervais and people are lining the streets in the pouring rain.  I soon pass Amy and she cheers me on into the aid station.  I get into the aid and I am starving, I haven’t really eaten enough during the day and now 7:00PM at night.  I grab a bunch of chocolate pieces and chomp them down.  The one good thing about European races is that have excellent chocolate, this is not crap M&M’s and gummy worms like you get at U.S. ultras, this is fine dark chocolate like you would buy at Whole Foods.  I take of the pack and wrestle out the bladder thing to fill it up with water.  A volunteer fills it up with “fizzy water”, then I wrestle to put the bladder back in and put the pack back on. 

(The masses of runners early on, photo by
The rain is absolutely ridiculous now.  It starts to get dark so I pull the headlamp out of my pack and I can barely see in front of me with the rain reflecting all the light.  The water washes down the trail and the ground is super muddy and slippery.  I plug away for what feels like an eternity to my first crew station at Les Contamines.  Amy spots me as she is waiting outside the crew station in the pouring rain.  Each crew station consists of two sections, one general station where they allow only runners and then one section where they allow the runners and the crew.  This is great and all, but when you are 60 miles in the race and your brain is fuzzy, you can’t remember what aid station has crew and what aid station does not.  So long story short; Amy is going to be waiting outside a lot in the rain over the next 24 hours. 

I get into the crew station and she can see it on my face, this is not going well.  I am way farther back then I would expect to be – around 150th.  I tell her I don’t think I am going to make it to the end and she assures me to just keep plugging along.  I am super hungry and have used a lot of energy just to run 20 miles.  I down an Ensure and she takes my pack from me and fills it with water/drink mix.  She reassures me that I know the next 2 climbs; I had run them in the previous week.  I am worried that I will not see Amy until 30 more miles.  I load up on everything, gels, bars, headlamps.  I put one around my waist and one around my head, and then head back outside.

(Brian's Patagonia teammate, Jesse Haynes, runs through the rain and dark)
The rain starts to slow down as I head outside and I actually know where I am on the course.  I had run this climb twice earlier in the week so that gives me a little bit of confidence.  I power hike the first steep bits then run the jeep road sections.  I start to feel better now that the rain has slowed.  There are still a few people on the climb cheering the runners on.  They had lit some small camp fires along the trail and the heat of the fire feels good as I run by.  I run through another checkpoint somewhere on the climb of to the Croix de Bonhomme.  I walk through the checkpoint and one of the volunteers says “go USA” and then slaps me on the ass.  I keep on grinding up as the trail gets steeper rockier and narrower.  As I am climbing up I keep passing people, I start to feel good that I am going forward rather than backwards at this point.  I just keep working my way up and ask a runner ahead of me if he speaks English.  I ask him where he is from and he says D.C., then he tells me he is Mike Wardian.  I figure I must be doing better if I am catching someone of his caliber so this gives me confidence.  I crest the top of the climb and head down.  It is hard to see with all of the fog, I have a headlamp around my waist and one on my head but this doesn’t help that much.  I take it easy-ish on the downhill since I can barely see and I want to save my legs.  Once I start to ease up people start passing me again.  Amy had run this section a few days prior and told me that it was hard to run since there were little ruts that you had to run down barely large enough to put your feet, now I know what she means.  I get a little frustrated, but convince myself that we are only 25 miles in and I will catch anyone that passes me in a few miles. 

I get into the aid station at the La Ville des Glaciers.  I see Jeremy Humpries in the aid, he recognizes me first, but he does not look so good.  He tells me that he is not feeling well, but wishes me luck on the rest of my journey.  I ask a volunteer for more “fizzy water” and they instantly say NO.  I show them the opening in the bladder and point to where to fill it, they say NO.  I had gotten used to this “NO” treatment over the last two weeks of being out here so I give up on the “fizzy water” and go just for plain old water.  That they are ok with and fill up the bladder and I try to jam it back into the pack.  I swear at it a little bit then finally get it back in.  I run outside into the rain and start the long climb up to the Col de la Selgne.  I had also run this one the week prior and knew that it was long, so I was ready for a slog.  I run up the road and end up running with two previous UTMB and CCC champions.  They speak English and I am happy to chat with them for a little while.  I feel better that I am with some solid guys even though they tell me that they are out of shape.  

We stay together up the road until it turns to trail and gets steep and I pull ahead.  I take a minute to look around and the view is crazy.  Ahead of me is a stream of 50 or 100 headlamps on the switchbacks ahead, behind me is also a long line of lamps, now I realize how many people are out here.  I hike most of the steep section of climb and goes on and on and on.  My legs feel good but it is just too much energy to run it I know I have to take it easy since there is still a lot of race left.  I steadily pass other runners up the climb then I know I am nearing the top when I get to the little technical river crossing section.  I scamper across the wet rocks having to use my hands a little bit and crest the hill.  

I run down the hill and this one is a little more buffed out that the last one, kind of like a bad jeep road with some switchbacks.  I hold the yahoos off behind me and I don’t think anyone passes me on this decent, now we are getting into the mileage a little bit about 40 mi or so.  I had never run this section of trail before, but I had met a hiker on the top of this climb a week back and he explained what to expect in the next few kilometers.  I ran the flat until the trail turned up a bit and started hiking up the climb.  I passed a few more guys on the climb and it was pretty short for UTMB standards.  Now I knew it was a big downhill to Courmayeur Italy where I could see Amy again.  It felt like the never ending downhill.  I must have blanked the top on the downhill out but remember seeing the city lights off in the distance and feeling like I was a lot higher than them. 

Down, down, down I went.  It started to get real steep as I got farther down with tight switchbacks with dirt and wooden stairs.  With the fog and the night it was hard to maneuver the stairs.  They were at uneven distances and I had a hard time sensing the distance from stair to stair, I felt like my eyeballs were rattling on this downhill from all of the impact of the stairs.   Finally I hit the streets of the city and people directed me to the aid station.  I saw Amy and was happy to see her.  First thing was first I had to change out the spandex, it was soaked from the rain and 50 miles in wet spandex is really uncomfortable to the balls.  Just as I am about to drop trou, I see Bryon Powell with his camera pointed at me asking how I am doing.  I tell him that he doesn’t want to see this one and I get naked behind the table.  I liberally apply lube to the undercarriage and slap a new pair of Patagonia ¾ length tights on. I have Amy take out all of the wet clothing in my pack and replace it with dry stuff to save weight, what a difference that makes the pack feel so light even with ¾ liter of water in it.  I down an Ensure take some more food and get out of there.  I feel like I am spending more time then usual at the aid, but I feel that it is important to get stocked up and comfortable before I head out since it is 25 miles before I see Amy again.

(Amy and Brian at Cormayeur, photo by Bryon Powell/
I head out to the streets and head uphill to the trailhead.  I feel good; light with the wet stuff removed from my back and run the steep uphill to the trail head.  Amy and I had hiked this climb in the previous week so I knew what to expect.  The climb was not that long and I was feeling good.  I passed another runner on the climb that seemed to be working hard but stuck with me after I passed him.  We got to the top of the climb and then finally there was a nice 12k flat section.  It was at 2000 meters of elevation which took some extra effort to run, but it felt good to run on something flat.  The trail was nice and smooth and narrow sweet single-track.  I start to run pretty quick for 50-something miles in and start to pick off guys again.  Now I am passing groups of 3 and 4, I keep working running the flats and the slight ups feeling good.  About an hour into this I pass a runner as I head up to the aid station.  I say to myself 'that that looks like Tim Olsen'.  I figure that can’t be him, I am in 50th place or so right now and he should be killing it up ahead of me.  Then after the fog clears from my brain when some of the sugar from the aid station kicks in after I exit the aid I realize that was Tim Olsen.  This gives me some motivation; I just passed Tim Olsen, Holy Crap.  This gives me some motivation as I continue to run to the start of the climb of the Grand col Ferret, or the Ferret climb (like the animal is how I remember it).  The sun starts to come out and it feels great to turn off my headlamp and run by daylight again.   

As I start up the climb I can see the day is clearing up.  The view to my left of Mont Blanc is absolutely amazing.  This is the first time I saw the mountain from this side and you can see how massive it is.  From bottom to top is so much vertical, more than anything I have ever seen.  I grind up the ferret climb as a helicopter circles overhead.  I gets cold as I head up and have to pull on my rain jacket for warmth.  Someone snaps a photo of me as I crest the top and I am excited for the ride down.  This is one of the longest descents in the race, descending 1500m in 20k or so.  I make my way down and the temperature heats up as I get lower down.  The trail drops off steeply on my right and I am feeling sort of dizzy at the moment.  I feel kind of giddy and not really worried at all that there is a sheer drop to my right.  I come to my senses and force down a gel to get some energy and pull it together. 

(Brian, enjoying the early morning running, photo by
The downhill gets steep and grassy; with all of the runners ahead of me this is super slick.  I pick my way down the hill trying not to fall, but not waist too much time.  On my way down I see two runners ahead.  As I come upon them I realize that it is Dakota Jones and Mike Foote.  Ok 2 more superstars that I should not be passing, this gives me a little boost of energy.  I ask them if this is mile 75 and they tell me that I have a long way to go to 75.  I get into the aid station and blankly look at the sign on the wall to convert the 108k to miles to figure out how many more miles until I get some real calories and see Amy again.  My brain tells me I just ran 2 50k’s + a little bit extra so I should be at like 65 or something like that, 10 to go till Amy.  I take out my little personal cup that I am required to carry and grab a bottle of Pepsi.  I hastily try and pour the soda with a fuzzy brain into the cup and it spills a little bit on the table.  The aid station volunteer looks at me in disgust – at least I didn’t get the “NO”.  After some more soda spilling and dirty looks I get out of there before I am pulled from the race for American messiness. 

The next 10 miles are actually easy miles, yes, easy.  Dirt roads, tar roads, slightly downhill and some single-track.  It feels good that I can actually run again and now I am getting lower in elevation I have more energy and lung capacity.  I pop the little climb up to the Champex aid station (mile 75) and Amy is waiting for me.  She tells me I am doing great in 30-something place and I am doing my Brian thing and working my way up the field.  She tells me Neal is 15 or so minutes ahead of me and killing it in 20-ish place.  She mumbles something to me about giving Anton Kuprica my Ruffles potato chips as she hands me a crappy little bag of chips.

(Easy, non-technical downhills, photo by

I run outside the aid station and I see Joe Grant and he gives me a nod as I run down the stairs.  I figure that is weird since he is crewing for AK, so why is he still here.  Anyway, I know what is left 3 smaller climbs and 30 miles to the finish.  I can do this.

I start hiking up the climb and it gets progressively steeper and muddier as I ascend.  I pass guys here and there and catch a glimpse of runners off in the distance a few minutes ahead of me now and then.  I keep my head down and keep plodding.  I feel good, my energy is ok my legs don’t feel that bad and the sun is out, what more can I ask for.  The little hill seems to never end even though I am moving ok, finally I crest the top and head down.  The downhill sucks.  It is completely muddy and strewn with roots and rocks, I pick my way down trying not to waste too much energy or fall in the mud.  Finally I cross the road and start looking for the aid station.  We had hiked here the week prior and thought the aid was next to the little tourist shop at the top of the pass, but actually it was at the city at the bottom of the hill.  Down, down, down more jarring slick stairs with boards holding the earth back.  Finally I see the aid station and run in. 

Just outside the aid a volunteer asks for my headlamp, cell phone and rain jacket in broken English.  I show it to him and then get into the aid station.  I am confused.  This is a crew stop, but Amy is nowhere to be seen.  What happened to her?  I get frustrated.  I want to change my clothes because it is getting real hot outside and I want some food other than chocolate bars.  I keep looking around and no Amy, I run into Neal in the process and he tells me that he is cooked.  He puts a bunch of oranges in a zip lock and tells me that he will be walking up the trail. 

I start to get mad, no Amy, WTF, 85ish miles and no crew when I am counting on it this sucks.  Then I start to get worried.  Did she take the car and get into a car crash or get towed because some French guy didn’t like where she parked? 

I get out of there and catch Neal on the climb.  We chat for a few minutes and we both agree this one is a Beast!   Pretty soon Neal is nowhere in sight and I am alone again.  I am still moving well and catching people here and there.  I catch about 7 or so in a stretch of 10k, they are barely moving at this point.  One smaller climb to the next crew spot and hopefully Amy is there.  Sooner than I expect I see the aid station ahead of me at the bottom of a steep grass hill.  I see an Italian runner ahead of me, but don’t really bother to try and pass him.  His team manager is yelling at him in Italian as he enters the aid station just ahead of me. 

Now I am relieved to see Amy waiting for me.  I ask her what happened at the last one and she tells me that it is a long story and she will tell me when I finish.  Just about as I am going to get naked again there is a guy with the live UTMB feed pointing a camera at me.  I try to convince him that this is not a good time and pull off my pants and put on some shorts and a tank top.  She tells me that I am doing great ant that I am in 20-something place with a group just ahead of me.  I down an Ensure and take some chips for the road; from here to the end is only 19k with one final climb.

I quickly catch and pass the Italian runner that was ahead of me into the aid station he looks blown.  I am feeling pretty tired too.  Just running on the slight uphill to the last climb is hard.  I have to walk on almost flat ground, but I am still pulling away from the runner behind me.  I cross the road and hit the final climb.  Quickly I pass 2 runners on the climb.  Then I pass a runner with a real low number (turns out to be Jez Bragg) this makes me feel good that even the studs are struggling.  A little more climbing and a couple more runners.  People are lining the trail to cheer us on and take pictures.  I get to the top of the steep part and it just keeps going up with rocky technical trail.  I run a little bit, but pretty much walk because I am real tired at this point.  I can see a checkpoint up ahead.  One of the runners that I passed on the uphill passes me back on the crap rocky technical downhill.  He says that we have to go to that house way off in the distance; crap more climbing.  I make decent time to the house and am dreaming of coke. 

(Beautiful downhill singletrack, photo by
I lost my little cup so I have to empty out my bag of chips and pour coke into it.  It tastes wonderful.  Only 8k to go and all downhill from here.  The section out of the aid station is super steep down, a woman is hiking up with poles and barely gets out of my way in time as I fall down the hill.  The grade gets less steep and turns into a rocky dirt road.  It feels good to let gravity do the work and fall down the hill.  The trail turns to single-track, it is rocky and rooty, but not that bad kind of like New England running.  I can hear something behind me so I figure it is someone about to pass me.  I don’t have much fight left so if someone tries to pass I am going to let them.  It turns out it is a guy going for a run that wanted to watch the runners.  He follows behind me which is a little annoying, but when the trail gets wider he runs aside of me.  It is nice to have someone to talk to and he gives me info of how much I have left and what to expect.

Before I know it I am heading into town and the people are lining the streets.  He said it was 1km from when I hit asphalt to the finish and I can’t wait for it.  I try and enjoy the last few minutes of the run slapping the kid’s hands as I run my way into the finish.  Finally I see the banner and I am relived – I actually made it.  I cross the line and Amy and Bryon Powell congratulate me. 

(Brian, slapping hands just before he finishes, photo by Bryon Powell/

Overall I was happy 19th place and just under 24hrs.  I was the second male American – not bad for a super stacked field. 

(Exhausted and happy, Brian finishes in 19th place just under 24 hours, photo by Bryon Powell/


  1. Great race, it was fun following the east coasters online through out the race.

  2. Great performance, Brian. Congratulations on running smart and finishing strong! This is a race I'd love to do some day. I really enjoyed the report. Hope to see you at VT 50 next weekend! -Eric Ahern

  3. Nice job. I watched you finish yesterday at Pisgah - you are inspiring. You run in a different world than the rest of us. Michael Childs

  4. GREAT race report and majorly impressive race! I love that Amy gave your Ruffles to Anton!

  5. Just reading this now - amazing race. Really inspiring stuff.