Thursday, 4 September 2014

My Quest for the Giblet

To say I was nervous is an understatement! How Thomas got through the last week before the race with me coming up with new symptoms every day I don’t know. From a sore throat to never known low back pain and right knee swelling that needed icing on a daily basis to plain nausea and headaches, he kept his cool and put it all down to taperitis! Well diagnosed Dr Loehndorf! He had every faith in me to get my goblet, eh, gilet and by the end of the week it was a giblet I was after!

On race day though he too succumbed and I could feel his stress and anxiety rising as we made plans how to meet me in the middle of the night after 44M by using the buses provided and bringing the allowed 30L backpack filled with new shoes and a total change of clothes, new gels etc. The anxiety proved to be justified as our meeting nearly didn’t happen. 

We got onto the bus that would bring me to the start in Courmayeur in Italy by driving the 30min through the Mt Blanc tunnel. I was so glad he was there and we found a cafe and free seats to bridge the 90min until the start. We met Terry Addison though I was no good company and eventually it was time to get into the start pens. Brief hug from George and Karen and I settled into the 2nd pen. Met John, Malcolm and Carol who then decided to get into the first pen, but I stayed put. Maybe not the best decision given the queues later but I had already jumped one pen and thought Id better stay where I was.

Finally we were off! The adventure was on its way! I had wanted to run up to a road turn that I knew from our stay in May but pretty soon the road out of Courmayeur was rather steep and the backpack heavy … I walked a bit earlier than planned and then the first big climb started, 1500m up to Tete de la Tronche! I power walked at a good pace but when the path narrowed a long queue of runners/walkers had already formed. I settled into the queue and everyone was working hard to get up this climb. We came to the gully at 2000m that had been covered in snow in May and I knew you had to scramble down a bit to cross it. Coming closer I could see a huge crowd gathered at the edge of the gully staring down. Oh-had someone fallen?! No, there were only 2 official paths down and people had to wait their turns, others were looking out for alternative routes (that we weren't supposed to take due to the risk of erosion) but I decided it wasn’t worth risking a fall and activating my helicopter rescue insurance at this early stage. So I waited my turn which probably took 10min at least. Once over the gully it got really steep as the narrow path wound itself up to the top. I realised I was already working very hard and was probably close to my max heart rate. I remembered that T had said to use up the gels and not carry them around. I had planned to save them for difficult times but I realised eating 3 jelly babies every 30min for an effort like this wouldn’t cut it. So I did use the gels and kept up a steady pace. Some people stepped aside to take a break but I kept going slowly but surely. No point stopping as it wouldn’t get easier afterwards. Everybody was head down and upwards. Sometimes the whole queue came to a halt as somewhere someone was going even slower. Due to the steepness it was then rather difficult to find a comfortable position for my feet and I spent a lot of time on my toes or at an awkward angle during those enforced pauses. I tried to make small talk on a few occasions, offered French, German or English but to my surprise I got nothing back. It was a first indication that this race was all about putting your head down and getting on with it. When we got to the top of the climb over 2500m the views were stunning. I marvelled briefly and again tried to get a reaction from fellow runners but - nothing. O well then. Then came a nice run along a ridge that was runnable even for me and I knew Thomas would be around Bertone Hut 15km into the race taking photos. He wasn’t allowed to help me but he was a welcome sight when I reached the hut after 4 hours. The downhill had been fairly fast for me as people were hurtling themselves down and I just thought how would these quads survive this? I took it easier and wanted to smile when I saw Thomas but I guess he realised I was working hard already. He shouted at me to drink Coke, which was a bit early on but I could certainly do with some so I drank 2 small cups. He thought I was doing well in around 1400 position though later on his tune changed! :-)

Now I was on a path that I had ran in May and I was looking forward to it. The time barrier for Arnuva at 16:30 and km 27 in my head I pressed on and arrived there around 15:00. This was the first major checkpoint before the next big climb up to over 2500m so I decided to refuel and take my first of many bowls of noodle soup! I refilled my water bottles, Nuun tab into one to make up my electrolyte drink and plain water in the other bottle. Off to tackle the 2nd big climb. Again I was working hard keeping up a rhythm, not stopping and dealing with the altitude as we reached Grand Col Ferret. There I put on a long sleeved top and started the long descent into Switzerland to La Fouly. This is where it started to rain and would not stop throughout the night for the next 8 hours or so. 

The descent was steep in places and started to become muddy and slippery.  I would step aside to let runners past or ask if they wanted to pass. Some did some didn’t. But then there were those who just shouted “Bouge”, not “bouge s’il te plait” just bouge! No “Merci” once they were past either. Imagine someone would just shout “move” on the Loch Lomond site path and push by you without saying thanks! Initially I was annoyed but then realised I shouldn’t waste any energy on this. 
When I reached La Fouly at 42km (Marathon distance) I had to sit down for the first time, I needed hot soup, food and a cup of coffee. I also needed to gear up properly, Goretex jacket, rain trousers and it was time to put the head torch on. I discovered some marzipan on the table and took a few pieces. By then my  own usually delicious energy bar tasted so dry, the bread and cheese were hard to swallow but I knew my energy reserves were getting depleted as I’d never worked at such an effort for such a long time. This was the only place I got a nice Good Luck from a fellow runner when I left the tent again. The descent continued before a steep climb up to Champex at km 56, the “half way” point. I continued to feel hounded by all the runners that were still around me on these  narrow slippery paths and by the time-barriers that were getting closer instead of further away. At one point I had my phone in the hand to ring Thomas but put it away again as all I would have done would have been crying. I told myself to get to half-way and then speak to him. When I arrived in Champex there was chaos in the tent, it was busy, people sleeping with their head down on the tables, mud, rain, I phoned Thomas and said I would make it to Trient, the next checkpoint where he would be and then I would see. I felt totally rushed, couldn’t relax and nobody would speak! He didn’t say much and I set about at sorting myself out. This was one of the more difficult parts of the race as you had no support crew helping you, telling you what to do/eat/drink, sorting your shoes/feet, you were it and had to deal with it yourself. I put on my mid-layer as the rest was now wet from sweating so much on the uphills, had more soup, overheard someone saying he would take a hot drink for the next high climb, decided that sounded like a good idea, chucked out my electrolyte, put black tea in it with sugar and set off. Then I was worried that my bottle would melt or I couldn’t drink tea as I’m not really a black tea person! But it was delicious and reminded me of our Kilimanjaro expedition where we were given hot tea with sugar too. The only thing that kept me going uphill and over the next high climb was knowing I would meet Thomas in Trient, 72km into the race, around 44M. I could then get onto the bus with him and back to the hotel. Who needs a gilet?! Stopping in Champex would have been a nightmare for getting back so I thought I would definitely get to Trient. 

What I didn’t know was that he nearly didn’t make it as he was waiting on a bus for 2.5 hours. He knew how much I relied on him being there but couldn’t do anything about it. Then our friend Dirk came to the rescue. He drove from Zuerich to Trient (3hrs drive) so that at least he’d be there to help me even if there were no dry clothes.  While this went on I set about climbing the next mountain, it was raining heavily by now, all I could see was the path in front, the calves and in most cases compression socks of the runner in front and rain. At the top I took a wee rest and started the descent. This was to be one of 2 most treacherous and slippery descents I ever had to negotiate. All I saw was the next mud patch in my headlight or the next tree root covered in mud while hearing water deep below me to my right or seeing pure darkness at the edge of the patch. That might  have been as well as seeing the drop on my right wouldn’t have helped my confidence in finding the next least muddy root to place my foot and hoping I wouldn’t slip. All the time balancing myself with my walking poles. My arms have never worked so hard as I held on to the poles for dear life! It took ages to get down to Trient. 

Arriving at Trient checkpoint I saw Thomas and Dirk waiting and burst into tears! Only Thomas was allowed into the tent and he set about at changing my torch batteries, drying my Goretex jacket, handing me a towel, dry clothes, new  gels, a protein shake. Somehow there was no talk of stopping! I went into the portaloo and acrobatically changed everything! More soup, more tea with sugar. And off I went. I  had new gels now and a few pieces of life-saving ginger tablet left. I had accidentally bought the wrong tablet but the ginger in it proved to be great as it settled my stomach nicely in between checkpoints and gave me a quick sugar boost.

Another long ascent followed, all I knew was by the time I got down again I would be in Vallorcine at km 82 and from then on I knew the way (and it would be less than a HM)! It was still pitch dark and as muddy as before. At the top of that climb we came to grassy surfaces that had turned into a sea of mud. It was like walking through soap. There were still a lot of fellow runners around and a couple doing the race together. Once at the top the guy just said I will lay down now for a bit and before she could stop him he was in the mud! She was not pleased! There were short bits where I was sort of alone or in front and it was my turn to find the next fluorescent marker hanging from the tree. That was actually fun and I thought my nephews would love it. At one point I could hear the cow bells and I thought I must be close to the next checkpoint and supporters will be ringing the bells but when I turned my head my torch shone right into the face of a cow right next to me chewing away. It made me laugh. At other times I would try to match the rhythm of the guy in front placing my feet and poles exactly at the same points. I took note of the compression gear, shoes and poles and later tried to decide if I had seen the calves/socks/shoes in front of me before. It kept me occupied for a while. Most of the time though I was on alert, totally concentrated not to slip and to move forward. When I was alone or out of ear-shots I did swear a few times when the path was just too steep and all I could do was sliding down.

After what felt like a long time I finally got down to Vallorcine, back in France and the last checkpoint. It was around 06:00. Dirk met me and asked if I wanted chips! I usually love chips but I wasn’t sure if I could eat them. Thomas greeted me with saying: “If you keep moving at this pace you will be timed out and not make it into Chamonix on time! Your predicted finish time is 12:23!” Hmm! I wasn’t allowed to take stones out of my shoes, took some soup, took one look at the portaloo (I hope that most of it was mud but it could have been something else so I aborted the toilet stop too) and set off to the Col des Montets. The chips were in fact delicious and I power walked by a lot of fellow competitors and got to the Col in 30min. I heard the guy at the control point saying to someone else that I was moving really fast as I had just come up in only 30min. This was in fact faster than when I had done it a few days earlier during my last training interval.

The last climb loomed but I was feeling ok. In fact I was held up by slower people but eventually we reached the top. The view was breathtaking as I found myself above the clouds. Thomas had told me before that there were definitely runnable bits up there but I took one look at them and decided no! The rocks were covered in mud from over one thousand other runners and the risk of sliding and falling continued. Even though the sun was out and the rain had stopped in the morning. I pressed on to La Flegere where the path ended on the terrasse of a cafe near the lift station. The owner stepped out and I asked him if I could use his toilet. He took one look at me and my muddy shoes but then allowed me to walk over his freshly cleaned tiles and use the very clean toilet. Bliss!  I thanked him profusely. Now I was ready for the last descent! Last chip timing in the tent, a medic was looming about, I just smiled and said Bonjour, she wouldn’t stop me!, drank a cup of coke and down I went the last 5M. I became a bit emotional as I realised this was it and it looked like I was going to complete this race. But it didn’t help my breathing so I gave myself a talking, kept saying to myself to concentrate, not to risk a fall and a possible broken bone at this stage. There were still 600m downhill to do. I reached the beautiful Chalet Floria half way down and waded through a few streams to clean my shoes a bit and cool my feet. Finally I arrived in Chamonix, 1km to go on the road. I put my poles away, tears were back and I tried to gather myself for the final run through the pedestrian area to the finish. 
It was done! I did it! We did it!

Thank you for all your thoughts, comments and texts. Going through all the checkpoint updates afterwards I kept finding your comments. Knowing that so many people would follow me and wish me on, did help a lot. Especially at night time. I kept thinking, what reason will I give for stopping, that I didn’t enjoy it? That it was too dangerous? That the atmosphere wasn’t friendly? And I thought about how much not only I but also Thomas had put in to get me ready, all those who helped me train, the birthdays and first-day at school that I missed because of this race. And I said to myself, no way, I will get this done, I will get this giblet! 

I know Thomas wanted me to do this in less than 24hrs, I knew I’d probably need more but certainly didn’t think I’d leave it that close. In the end I arrived after 25h 55min with 35min to spare until cut off, having covered 101km and 6000m ascent and 6000m descent. 

It was my toughest challenge to date. Despite being surrounded by nearly 2000 runners it was a very lonely race, I missed the camaraderie of the WHW family, the banter along the route, the support of fellow runners, the relaxed atmosphere. Don’t get me wrong the volunteers and supporters along the route were great as was the crowd in Chamonix, but during the race it was a very tense atmosphere. It took me 6 hrs to get into it and I thought others would also relax once the first time barrier was successfully passed, but it didn’t happen. Maybe it was a bit too big and too competitive for me? 

It was great to share this experience with the WHW-family who was out there, without them it wouldn’t have been the same! 

I’m still feeling rather proud that I did finish this race but I couldn’t have done it without you! Merci beaucoup!


Rhona @ said...

Great write-up, Silke! Every so often I think that I'd like to do one of the UTMB races, but then I read a race report and it reminds me that I'm really not ready yet! So many aspects of it sound so tough, especially the long queues getting up hills. It is really tough to move at someone else's pace (or lack of) for a long time.
It's a real shame that the atmosphere was not as friendly as it looks in all the pictures/videos etc. I can imagine up in the mountains in the weather where everyone is working very had that people's sense of humor may fail a bit but to not reply to greetings or be polite when passing other runners is pretty unacceptable in my book! I guess we are spoiled with the amazing ultrarunning community we have here in Scotland. I've never done an ultra out of Scotland but I wonder how I would find it if I was suffering badly in a race and came into a check point that wasn't full of friendly faces!
Congratulations again and see you soon :)

Andy Cole said...

Well done indeed Silke, a great effort! The lack of friendliness in the Chamonix events hasn't been my experience, but maybe it varies depending on the race, conditions, where you are in the field and so on.

Debs M-C said...

Fantastic Silke. Amazing performance and great report.