"The goal is to become the unique, awesome, never to be repeated human being that we were called to be." -Patricia Deegan

Friday, December 4, 2015

A Month in the Life of #sleddogintraining

And I thought training for UTMB was intense.

On February 4th, two months from now, I will set off on foot pulling a sled with all my provisions on it for the 304mile (490km) Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra (MYAU). Very roughly, every 18 hours, I will pass a checkpoint aid-station, where they will give me a meal (one meal, they note, don't get greedy) and boiling water. At three of those eight checkpoints, I will have a precious drop bag, which will have the treasures I chose to put in it. Spare batteries, new socks, food for the next 36-48 hours. I'd like to pack spare brains and feet, but I haven't found any online at a reasonable price yet.

No, that's not the racing pulk. Just a training option. Oh, but for a hill to toboggan down, though!

On the one hand, the event is very simple. Follow the trail of the Yukon Quest sled dog race northwest out of Whitehorse, Yukon, towards Dawson City, until I reach the finish line (before Dawson City). Watch for wooden stakes in the ground (snow), though sometimes these infrequent markers are taken by vandals or pulled out by the wind or buried in new snow. Walking and pulling, maximising forward motion, minimising sleep, until I see that finish line.

Though I have the benefit of having grown up in Canada, regularly spending winters exposed to -30C or worse, and having even camped in it a few times, the MYAU poses a million new challenges I've never had to face.

The scariest thing about this race is that I don't know what I don't know. I don't know what I need to learn. In reading and researching, there have been a zillion "Aha!" "Really?!" and "Good to know!" moments.

DIY spa: 30kph wind exfoliating skin with airborne sand
Training still includes base running, because (1) it keeps up my fitness and (2) it's fun and (3) the endorphin hit keeps me sane. However, the chief fitness adaptation I need to make is the ability to walk for 18-20 hours a day, pulling a sled through snow. The load through the hammies, tibialis anterior, and feet is markedly different to running. I have been doing a mix of two types of pull.

My beach pull uses a 14.5kg metal sled like you see bodybuilders use in gyms. It's hard to pull any faster than a 15 min/k pace and I could not physically run for more than several metres with it without going totally anaerobic. I have done this for up to 5 hours so far - the high tide line and winds affect the sand quality on any given day, making it slightly easier or much harder. The view is generally beautiful, being alongside the Indian Ocean and I get a reprieve from the incessant flies in the bush, but it's tempered by hard pulling and a constant wind in my ears, blowing stinging sand at me. My skin swells up after hours of salt air until my fingers are so puffy I can barely bend them.

My kids, safety strapped in.
My gravel trail pull uses a converted kids' bike trailer on wheels. To that, I have added 30kg in weights. It's much easier to pull, so I can average speeds on "flattish" gravel terrain of closer to 11 min/k. I could even break into a run with this in good compacted terrain, but I don't, since it's the walking adaptation I need.

My sense is that the beach pull method is slightly harder than the Yukon will be and the wheeled pull is slightly easier.

Because of the long pulling walks needed, training time has gone through the roof. Peak training for UTMB saw me at about 15 hours/week. Last week, my training took 22 hours. Whilst I'm still cautious about an overtraining niggle developing, I know the low intensity stuff mitigates some of the risk. That said, my feet keep trying to morph into hawk claws due to tightness. Ever had a foot massage? I mean, a REAL foot massage? I should go under general anaesthetic for that. A frozen water bottle rolled under the foot works a treat, too. Just writing that made me go get my bottle.

My weekly strength training session in the gym has me on bigger weights with reps - deadlift, bench press, leg press, chest press, and the like, with all sorts of abdominal and low back work thrown in. We're making sure I maintain the upper body and core strength that keeps me upright, not slumped, at the long ultras. And making sure particularly that my hammies and hips are bombproof.

Surprisingly, I haven't found the long 8 hour pulls boring. I continue to enjoy the peace of nature. Well, except for the flies. It's fly season in Western Australia. Literally 30-50 flies around my head at any time, with 2 or 3 being on my face. A deep breath and I'll take one up the nose or down the throat. One ingestion per outing is pretty standard. I've finally ordered a head net, which will bring much internal peace on my future walks. You can mostly outrun them, but you can't outwalk them. To this point, I've tried to use them as a mental training tool :)

Reading (researching) and buying have become my secondary occupations. I just finished "Yukon Alone: The World's Toughest Adventure Race" by John Balzar. A fantastic, engaging read about the Yukon Quest sled dog race that runs 1,000 miles along the trail we capitalise on for the MYAU. I read it for information on the weather and the trail, and to glean any tips I could on surviving unscathed in the Yukon in winter, where temperatures average -25C and can drop to -50C or worse. I was hoping to get into the mind of a sled dog, but that might entail developing a love of frozen fish and raw moose meat, too.

11.5hr walk/run/scramble session in the Stirling Range; November. The jacket is protection from harsh bush not cold.

Breakfast reading is the relaxing "Hypothermia Frostbite and Other Cold Injuries: Prevention, Survival, Rescue, and Treatment" by Giesbrecht and Wilkerson. I found this gem in a bookstore in Colorado a few months back. I'm now also onto Mark Hines' "The Yukon Arctic Ultra: Ultra Marathon Adventure Racing Across Canada's Frozen North." This one is specifically about my race, so essential reading.

Yes, I used to carry a flask :)
I've learned that if I swallow whole frozen M&Ms, I will get frostbite in my throat and require evacuation. That the dry air requires my body to humidify it before it hits my lungs, increasing my need for water. 6 litres per day might be required. Heat lost by evaporation to humidify inhaled air means more calories needed. 6,000 to 8,000 per day might be required. I've learned that melting ice is more efficient than melting snow, but it's best to avoid either, given how long it takes. Every stop requires more clothing layers to be put on immediately, to avoid getting a chill. If I want to take my mind off it all with a big swig of whiskey from a cold flask, I will be reminded that alcohol is a great conductor and stays liquid well below freezing, so it will freeze my lips, tongue, and back of throat. This could be lethal. Yes, lethal. I've learned that it's better to stay still when immersed in cold water, as thrashing about increases convection - the water next to my skin will be warmed by me and if I move, I will displace it with colder water. I know that I have to rotate food stocks regularly, planning what I want to eat and placing it on my chest as a "microwave" to thaw it first so I don't break a tooth.

Batteries work poorly in cold and will either fail or lose their charge very quickly. So my headlamp must have an external battery pack on a cord strung down to my chest. Any other electronics such as a GPS device or camera could similarly fail unless kept against my chest. My chest is going to be a crowded place!

Sleep deprivation is a big part of this race. If I want to travel the distance quicker, I'll sleep less. Sleep dep decreases attention, concentration, reasoning, and problem solving. Things I might need to survive in the sub-Arctic. I know multi-day sleep dep from the Bibbulmun FKT, but I wasn't in extreme cold at the same time, where one bad decision can be fatal. Many racers seem to experience minor hallucinations (trees look like animals kinda thing) but a few have experienced full-on delirium. I read a story of a man on the trail who imagined his friend appeared in front of him and directed him to a lodge nearby. The man checked himself in to the nicest room for a proper rest. He was later found by another competitor, fast asleep in the snow near his team of dogs.

For the first 8hr trailer pull, I chose a more groomed trail
Every time I think I have most of the gear arranged, I come up with additions to the list. Just yesterday I placed an order for a waterproof map case (mine is worn out and hard to read through), stormproof matches, and an insulated hydration bladder with insulated hose. Trying to choose a bivy (after I got over the bivy vs tent week-long debate) took me about 8 more hours of research, reading specs and reviews, watching videos of the set-up for each one I considered. It was mentally exhausting! But at least at the end of it I felt confident in my choice.

I'm excited for this race, but maintain deep respect for it. I look forward to the challenge of maintaining strength and endurance over 5-8 days pulling in the snow, isolated much of each day in wilderness, all the while having to make ongoing critical decisions that will see me succeed or fail.

The next two weeks will have me continue my reading, gear collecting, and adding multi-day pulls in the bush with my camping gear instead of weights for company.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

The Stirling Ridge Walk FKT

View from north: Ellen Peak on the left, Bluff Knoll on the right
The Stirling Range (Koi Kyenuni-ruff in the Aboriginal) is Western Australia's only alpine environment. It's a striking area, about 65km wide, with several peaks about 1,000m high, surrounded by utterly flat farm land.

There is a very rough route, not maintained, that runs across a set of peaks between Bluff Knoll (aka Mount James) and Ellen Peak. The route between the two peaks is roughly 16km. Access from the west side at Bluff Knoll is easy - you can drive 8km up a bitumen road and park at a carpark underneath the peak, leaving a 3km hike to the summit. From Ellen Peak in the east, the run down to the boundary fence fire trail is 6km. Until a few years ago, the public was able to park on private property 2km further north, making the traverse a minimum of 24km. Now, with private property owners declining access, the run out east is to the gravel Gnowellen Road, 6km from the fire trail junction. This makes the minimum traverse distance 28km. And it still requires car shuttles/car drops to be arranged between Bluff Knoll carpark and Gnowellen Road.
The gps log of the RTW loop. Top left corner is at Chester Pass Road

Naturally, it makes sense to forego the hassle of cars at all and loop back to the start! :-) This can be done by running west along the northern national park boundary fence (or the parallel but hillier North East track) for 14km. Though the track out is pretty flat, the running can be a welcome change in stride after a long day of hiking and scrambling. And it allows for some contemplative moments as you run with the Stirling Range on your left, "unwinding" the day's outing, passing each peak one by one, in reverse. The loop makes the outing about 43km with 2500m gain.

An out-of-print guidebook by AT Morphet from 1996 details the "gruelling walk" over "very difficult terrain" as requiring 2 to 3 days. Tracks in 1996 were described as "vague and scant" and haven't improved, from what my experience indicates! Flowing water can be found in a few places in the western section, but can't be relied on in summer. Generally, one should carry all water and look upon any natural water encountered as a bonus emergency option. There are several natural caves in ledges that can be used for camping and a few sheltered places amongst sheoak trees where a tent can be pitched. Department of Parks and Wildlife (DPaW) notes on their webpage that it's necessary to have "a high level of specialised skills and equipment including navigation skills, a map and navigation equipment" in order to attempt the Ridge Top Walk (RTW). That's not an exaggeration. I'd say it's almost essential to have a person experienced in the RTW with you, as well.
The 2 guys who kept me alive on the 2010 traverse

In 2010 I was introduced to the RTW by a running mate. He guided me and a few others across the ridge - his 2nd successful of 4 attempts to that point. I took up the option of the complete loop - avoiding car shuttles entirely by running from the national park entry at Bluff Knoll Road and Chester Pass Road, up the 8km bitumen road, across the ridge, down to the north, and out the 14km northern boundary fence/fire trail. We finished in 14.5 hours, from memory, in the dark, just in time to get into the cafe on the corner for a pint!

After a 5 year absence from the Stirlings, I made my way back there in June this year to attempt the crossing again, leading two newbies through the route. Given the complexity in route finding and our choice to time the outing with one of the shortest daylight days of the year (late June in the southern hemisphere), we focussed on the traverse itself - Bluff to Ellen - with cars at both ends. We took 13.5 hours, starting and finishing in the dark, but doing all the complex ridge top stuff in light (navigation would be nearly impossible in the dark without having the route well memorised from experience). I was thinking to refresh my mind on the route for creating a Fastest Known Time (FKT) course, but after seeing the overgrown nature of the track, and spending much of the day slashing myself through prickly bush, I changed my mind.

But sometimes my mind changes me.

Not hard to see why I can forget the pain of bushwhacking

So it was that this week the Stirlings called me back to attempt the full loop, solo/unsupported.

My most overt goal was to create an official FKT loop (as official as they get), following the traditional route that has been in place for at least 20 years. I felt driven to do this from both inward and outward-focussed motivations. Inwardly, perhaps somewhat selfishly, I feel at home and alive and at peace when I'm in wilderness. My need to be "home" is increasing the past few years. So, spending two days alone in the Stirlings was a welcome idea.

Outwardly, I want to increase opportunities for trail hikers and runners to come "home" to wilderness, as well. To experience their own "wow" moments, where all the day-to-day laundry lists in our brain melt away and we enter the state of "being" rather than "doing."

Not everyone will approach the Stirling RTW with a goal to break whatever FKT exists at the time. Each person will come to the Stirling route with their own goals, wrapped within their own set of experiences and a personal limit on risk tolerance (the faster you go, the more likely you might be to twist an ankle or fall off a ledge). A person's fastest time will depend on a personal balance between desire for speed and desire to stand still, look at flowers and vistas, and take photos.
The bags under my eyes prove I was tent sleeping

I started at 5:11 am from the corner of Bluff Knoll Road and Chester Pass Road. Being November, it was already light. Expecting a faster traverse than previous outings, I downsized from my 21 litre pack to my UltrAspire Titan 14 litre. I packed 4 litres of water (or so I thought). My kit included a space blanket, flint, compression bandage, duct tape, mobile phone on airplane mode, painkillers and antihistamine, blister plasters, sunscreen, bugspray, lip balm, LED Lenser SEO7 headlamp and spare battery. I wore sunglasses (given the bushwhacking, even clear sunnies on a cloudy day would be prudent). I wore a short sleeve Icebreaker merino wool t-shirt (with arm warmers at the start). I hoped to wear my The North Face rainjacket all day as skin protection from very scratchy, cutting bush.

On my lower body, I definitely wanted protection from the bush. I knew from experience it could rip Compressport calf guards. I chose RaceReady shorts and Patagonia Torrentshield rainpants - very tough pants. I expected hot legs but hoped I could cope. The expected high was 26-28 degrees. Much warmer than I'd done, but I hoped the ridge top would be cooler as was typical.

I wore a Garmin 310XT with my June gps course (complete with nav errors!) on my left hand and another 310XT on my right. Though this seemed like overkill, it felt sensible somehow and turned out to be very useful. I could keep the left watch on map view and the right watch on time. At some point, the left one must have caught on a bush or rock and shut off - it wasn't long before I noticed it.

I also carried a Garmin e-trex handheld with the original "WalkGPS" file. Because gps devices can lose precision when up against cliff ledges and in gullies and such, I found having the two courses on different devices helpful.

A jacket with integral hood can be a joy on the ridge, as it can be very cold and windy and a cap won't always stay put. An ear band can be warming whilst also reducing the howling wind sound.
It went from jacket-on to jacket-off to jacket-on weather over an hour

My body hasn't felt 100% since returning from overseas a few weeks ago. Resting HR has been higher than normal. Digestion is off. As I jogged slowly up the 8km bitumen road to the early morning sounds of birds and buzzing insects, I found myself drinking a lot of my water. That wasn't usual. I had my first doubts. Maybe this wasn't my day for a big adventure. Maybe I just didn't have the mojo today.

I reached the upper carpark in about an hour, then the top of Bluff Knoll (3km uphill well-maintained singletrack) in about another hour. From there, the trail is minimally used and the navigation begins in earnest. Despite having just been there in June, I found myself lost/confused/off route quite markedly twice, early in the day. I pulled out the handheld each time and zoomed in to get precision. It was frustrating, but I was determined to backtrack rather than bushwhack back onto the course, as I'd done in June. I wanted to figure out where and why I'd gone wrong. The route is so tricky! Sudden sharp turns while descending, requiring you to scramble onto a ledge aren't intuitive. The intuitive thing is to keep heading down. Thus, many people have created dead-end "run-outs" in a few places and the result is that the run-outs look like the definite trail. Without flagging/proper signage to direct people at points where "trail" becomes ledge scramble, the run-outs will continue to be trafficked and continue to pose a serious navigational challenge for people. I spent time building more rock cairns, but unless a person turns their head to catch the view of cairns around a bend, the eye catches only the cairn directly at their feet, and the person will just continue on the most intuitive line. A cairn should be a sign to look for another cairn, as it doesn't indicate the direction to take from its position.

The "I hope this is going to end well" look at Isongerup Peak
After making a couple time-consuming errors (one was 30 minutes) and backtracking and building cairns over the first 5 hours, it was 10 am and hot. I had made it past Bluff Knoll, past Bluff's east peak, past Moongoongoonderup Hill (yes, that's spelled right), and was on Isongerup's South Peak. I pulled out my guidebook to picture the climb to Isongerup and onwards and grabbed a swig of water. The last swig. The bladder was dry. That was a surprise. I pulled out my spare water, knowing I wasn't halfway done in terms of time and the heat was mounting. As I transferred the water from my spare collapsible Nalgene, it filled my pack bladder to the 1.25ltr mark. Exciting. My worn out, trusty old collapsible Nalgene didn't hold 2 litres. I had 1.25 litres for the rest of the day.

A wave of fear rose up. I started reality-testing options as I went into problem-solving mode. I knew there was one emergency exit point off the ridge in front of me - the North Mirlpunda Track. I'd not taken it before, but had just read of some guys who had to take it as an emergency out on their traverse attempt and had found it in terrible condition. I also knew there was supposed to be a barrel at Third Arrow, also in front of me, that was located up high in a steep and narrow couloir/gully. It collected rain drops and couldn't be counted upon. Plus I had never even seen it. And foolish me, I hadn't brought my 50g Life Straw. The only time in the last 4 months of adventurous travel that I didn't carry it. Idiot.

I proceeded forward, with an eye on time. There were 5 peaks left: Isongerup, Mirlpunda (comprising three separate humped/rock lumps of peaks called First Arrow, Second Arrow, and Third Arrow), Baker's Knob, Pyungoorup Peak, and Ellen Peak. Then a long, snaking descent off Ellen, and the exposed fire trail 14km run.

On the 2010 traverse.
I was already congratulating myself on a fairly flawless ascent of First Arrow, when I reached a tricky nav point...still on First Arrow. I remembered being stumped in June, as well, when we were at this spot. I spent 15 minutes alternating between staring at the book, cursing, trying various very scary climbs (with scarier reversals/downclimbs!), and backtracking, until it finally came to me. I found the correct ledge to climb and carried on. What a route!

Second Arrow and Third Arrow were quickly ticked off the list. Third Arrow is one of my favourite spots - a lush sloping grassed gully ascent. A very peaceful place to rest for a moment in the shade. More sunscreen applied, a quick photo, and time to get moving. I placed rocks of thanks on the cairns I passed, grateful I was able to be on the ridge on a spectacular day. I had made decisions along the way to not take the emergency exit off the ridge, nor to look for the hidden water barrel. I was ready to fill my spare Nalgene with water if I found any, though wasn't expecting to in this eastern section (indeed, there were only rock drips).

Though slightly awkward for scrambling and bush bashing, I held the e-trex in right hand for the Baker's Knob ascent, as I had made a nav error here in June and couldn't afford the time and excess sun exposure. There's another "run-out" here, which I haven't seen the bottom of. I veered off the run-out and started ledge scrambling up to the top of Baker's, following the e-trex route - success!

Wet reeds and shade. It can only mean Pyungoorup!
I knew Pyungoorup's route, so could put the e-trex back in my pocket. The traverse is on the south side of this peak, making it mostly shaded. Very welcome, but it also means the whole thing is wet and covered in slick rocks, slick and steep muddy bits, and face-high reeds.

Ellen Peak appeared as I came out from behind Pyungoorup. Though it looked far away, I knew that in less than 30 minutes, I should be standing at the Boy Scout register on the summit. And so I was, 8 hours and 13 minutes into my day. I took a few minutes for selfies and thanked the universe again for the great opportunity to go across the ridge, studiously ignoring the thousand flies swarming me, trying to take away my happy factor. I had my version of celebration champagne...given I still had a lot of trekking to do - an Espresso gel with three precious swigs of water. I tried for a moment to buoy myself with the idea that I'd be done in 10 hours. But I knew that was rubbish. There was still much steep and overgrown bush to contend with and I was better to be realistic. Under 11 hours would be a pretty good achievement. I'd also had nav issues coming off Ellen Peak in June.
On Ellen Peak, looking west to the sharp edge of Bluff Knoll in the background.

The bush snagged at my arm warmers, hanging tied around the side straps on my pack. I put them inside - something I should have done in the beginning. Near the base of Ellen, one can finally get up to running speed again, albeit still pushing bushes out of the way and ducking under low hanging branches. One such "duck" wasn't low enough and the branch grabbed ahold and momentarily ripped me backwards off my feet. I felt for my SPOT tracker on the back and felt the pack and everything seemed intact. I kept going.

At the northern boundary fire trail, I turned west. 14km to go. I was finally able to remove my hot rainpants. Hooray! I had another celebration Espresso with water and decided I'd better start water rationing more seriously. Three sips every 10 minutes. This would hopefully allow me to preserve my water to near the end, preventing the mental negativity I'd experience if I ran out early and had dry mouth for a long time. Low water meant I'd have to run at a steady/easy pace - no hard physical finish. This was going to be a hard mental finish instead :-)

Melting crisis averted.
There was a shallow puddle of skunky orange water with things that looked alive in it. I soaked my hat, by letting it sit in the puddle for a minute as I ate my gel. Joyously, I found a real flowing creek a few k's later and walked right in, shoes and all! Using my hat, I poured water over my legs, chest, and down my back. I shrieked with the cold, but it was so good to get my core temperature back to normal. Probably a kilometre later, I went through another little creek. I soaked again, as I didn't think this would continue. I was already nearly dry from the last soaking.

I continued on, spooking emu periodically in the field next to me. I must have seen at least 14 in total, including 4 chicks. They brightened my spirits. Periodically, I had been in the habit of reaching behind to feel my SPOT device. With 6km to go, I felt. No SPOT. Bad SPOT, bad! I had no idea where it was, but I couldn't go back. I started to picture a recovery run coming into my future for tomorrow, replacing the relaxing picture I had of lazing in my tent in the morning. Damn. I couldn't figure out how I'd lost it, except that I'd perhaps left it on the ground at the Espresso stop. This was a lesson for the Yukon Arctic Ultra - how would I keep myself from losing critical gear or leaving gear behind when shattered from sleep deprivation and cold and fatigue?

With a few k's to go, I passed a thicker bunch of trees that had a particular smell. I can only call it the "Bibbulmun smell." When I get that smell, I'm immediately transported back to the Bibbulmun FKT with a wave of anxiety. Four years on and I'm still affected by that trip...and think about doing it again, self-supported. Nutter.

I started looking at my Garmin map, knowing I should see the bread crumb trail of my starting position appear. I zoomed out and saw it about 3k away. A few minutes later I looked again. It looked the same. I tried to wait longer, but looked again. And again. It was like a cruel joke, as it just didn't seem to be getting any closer. A watched pot never boils and a watched Garmin triangle on a map never moves. I had to take my mind off my negativity. I was running west, right into the sun, on a sandy track, with rationed water and nearly 11 hours in my legs. My shoes, gaiters, and long Compressport socks were covered in some kind of sharp, poking barbed grass that covered sections of this track. I looked like I'd been attacked by a porcupine and I felt it, too. I needed to get out of my negative talk. I pledged to sing the alphabet song five times before I was allowed to look at my watch again. Naturally, I sang in my head to prevent making my dry mouth worse. I am a sensible girl, after all ;-)

At 11 hours 6 minutes 27 seconds, I connected my loop back at the road intersection. I took the photos for further evidence to go with my GPS files and jogged the 600 metres or so back to the campground. I aimed straight for my esky, where I downed the two cold drinks I had in less time than it takes to sing the ABC's.

Done. The happy is all inside, a little shrunk with dehydration. It will expand soon :-)

The next day at 6.30 am, I went back for SPOT, having the coordinates sent to me by Rolf. About 8k back, there he was, still calling out every 10 minutes. The plastic protective case had been torn, allowing it to fall from my pack, where it was clasped. The branch that caught me on the run out was likely the trigger that started the rip and my continued running had caused it to keep tearing until it finally gave way.

So go on. Get out there and find your own personal challenge on the RTW. It's there, waiting to commune with you.

Addendum: Please, please, please, think twice if you read about my ability to manage on 1.25ltr of water for 6 hours and use that as your gauge for packing water for your RTW. Have a look at the ultra running experience I have. I know my body well and can read its signs. It has adapted. Several years ago, that would have been impossible for me. I'm not trying to be cocky. Cocky can kill. Or at least teach us very painful lessons.

Friday, October 23, 2015

The Generator in the Campground

As I've been making the long journey towards home in Perth, the low growling malaise intensifies.

What does it take to be happy?

No, I'm definitely not depressed, but I sure don't like this grumbly feeling of discontent that sits like a far away generator in a campground, running constantly, but disturbing my peace only intermittently.

I have had an incredibly rich and rewarding season abroad and have learned many cool things, such as:

Tarantulas get a bad rap because of their size and hairiness, but they are harmless, shy, and docile.

At 4100m, climbing Mt Sneffels, Colorado - trees below lake are over 3400m!
Trees CAN grow above 2,000 metres. And above 3,000 metres. And even higher. Latitude plays a role, as do maritime winds and other forces of nature.

Coyotes eat melons. Wild, desert melons (cururbita palmatans). Aussies, think pig melons.

Grand Canyon's top, which appears rather like a desert plateau, is high. About 2,200 metres.

Squirrels in America carry bubonic plague. One very good reason not to feed them.

Converting Fahrenheit to Celsius is done by taking (temp - 32) and dividing by 1.8.

Matterhorn is on the Swiss-Italian border, so is naturally called something else by Italians. That something is Monte Cervino.

The physical remains of hopes and dreams of previous generations of Bensons
My Swedish great grandpa paid $10 to secure and work 160 acres of land in Saskatchewan in 1903, then became a citizen and got his "patent" (ownership) of the land in 1907. Sweden is the one ancestral place I haven't been to yet (having been to England, Ireland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Germany).

Navajo Indians grow real, chewy types of corn and make tea from leaves that grow wild in ditches.

Anasazi means ancient ones or ancestors.

There are some seriously messed up American government policies, but many, many beautiful, kind people living in beautiful places there.

Lemon Perrier tastes like dish soap, but grapefruit Perrier is awesome.


But amidst all my learnings this season in the campground of life, the generator has grumbled away in the background.

I knew happiness - true, contented happiness - wasn't going to be found in running well at UTMB this year. That's too shallow and it sure couldn't bring a high to last a lifetime...not a long lifetime, anyway :)

Great views at my feet in Iceland. But parting clouds disclosed what was hidden!
After being on the European continent for the season, I spent six days exploring the south of Iceland with two of my family, hiking around Europe's largest icecap in a 9 degree rainstorm and fog. Invigorating and challenging; I was in the moment. Can't hear a generator through two layers of rain jacket!

On to Canada, where my recovery month continued. I ran a 15 km trail event with my mum, who only started running a handful of years ago. The race route overlooked a lake with colourful autumn foliage and the friendly, low-key event was followed by the most spectacular Northern Lights of my life that night. Special indeed. But that generator....

Ready to run a few more miles again, I headed for Golden, British Columbia, to target some "bucket list" Rocky Mountain runs in my homeland. I explored the Iceline Trail and Emerald Triangle routes, running up to 2,200 metres alongside glaciers and fossils, with my partner who has built up again to long distance after doing in an ACL, MCL, and meniscus last year. "Wow!" views appeared around so many corners as I called out, "Haaaaaaay-ooooooohhh" to warn off bears. I felt adventurous, healthy, and strong. You can't hear the generator when you're yelling ;)

Yet so many of those nights, tucked into my "tent," I felt the malaise of that bloody generator rumbling away in my brain.

On to America in October. The Canyon de Chelly 55km Ultra on Navajo Reservation land. A celebration of Rolf's recovering knee injury - a long year with lots of low points. Elders lit a fire and said prayers to greet the rising sun in the east, blessed us with eagle feathers, then sent us running towards the sun, down a canyon full of ancient ruins and petroglyphs. A handmade turquoise necklace was placed around my neck at the finish. I was thankfully too tired to attend to any rumble of discontent in my head that night.

A warm autumn allowed us to point the little red rental car towards Colorado and make an attempt on a Class 2+ "14er" - one of Colorado's 14,000+ foot mountains. After much hand-over-hand scrambling and a few hours spent calming the panicking monkey minds within ("OMG. What are you doing?! This is scary. There's no shame in turning around at 4,100m"), we reached the top of Mount Sneffels at 14,150ft/4,315m. My highest self-propelled summit. I was too focused on the impending descent to celebrate my scrambling skills or feelings of bravery! That night, the mix of adrenaline, cortisol, and other chemicals kept me focussed on my queasy stomach more than my questions about the pursuit of happiness.

Were all these adventures just a distraction from the malaise? A way to be in the moment and prevent me from hearing the incessant rumbling generator, like a refrain repeating, "BUT WHAT ARE YOU DOING WITH YOUR LIFE??" And does it matter?

From mountain highs to the fiery red sandstone slot canyons and washes of Utah and Arizona. Geological forces thousands of millions of years old. Time scales we can't really fathom. We waded through water for hours, numbing the feet, whilst keeping an eye on the weather in case of flash flooding. Feeling adventurous again. Exploring. Happiness? Or just another distraction in a series of distractions?

Getting four seats between the two of us for the long haul flight from LA to Sydney. Happiness? Or just less suffering? ;)

A cup of Earl Grey tea. Good Earl Grey tea. I mean, that can be pretty good.

My photo app freezes as I write this blog post and I reboot. I'm staring at the machine, wondering what I'll be writing next. Wondering what answer I can find for myself as I try to write out my malaise. The screen comes alive. Staring at me is my current desktop background. A "one-a-day" calendar page from one of those calendars full of cat photos, which I saw on my dad's beer fridge this season. A lazy cat laying there looking at the camera - with the caption:

Never act until you have clearly answered the question, "What happens if I do nothing?"

Will I find happiness in an adventure? Will I find it at home? By volunteering? By giving away my possessions and going on a six month retreat? By doing nothing? By accepting the malaise? By looking for answers ... or by not looking for answers?

What happens if I just accept the generator sound in the campground of life?

I wonder if the generator will work in the icy cold at the Yukon Arctic Ultra this February. Maybe it will be all quiet up there ;)

Well, perhaps I have it. The last learning from my season abroad: Accept the generator noise in the campground of life.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Ultra Titanic Mountain Book (A UTMB Story)

Jumping over Mont Blanc from Italy's Aosta region

I was never going to win the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB). The maths told me that. I needed a workable, but challenging goal for doing the race. Goals related to position (e.g., "Aim for top 10") aren't scientific, so they don't work for me. They rely on external factors - the girls who rock up on the day. I needed a goal I could control - thus, it had to be a time-based goal.

This is "sports massage"?!?
My goal was therefore to run the fastest UTMB I could, given my parameters (age, experience, fitness, skills, etc). I immediately set out to identify the weaknesses I thought could hamper my goal - the parameters I could affect. Thus, things other than age or VO2max ;) These were things that could improve my time. For this race, I determined I needed to work on downhill skills and I needed to ensure I had access to regular, good massage and sports chiro. Typically by the time I've spent a month in Europe, my body is in such bad knots that my hips aren't moving and my neck is locked up and in constant discomfort. Massage in Switzerland, my Euro home base, is nearly all "homeopathic" like - candles, special Tibetan stones, colour therapy.... One supposed sports-specific therapist this year put a special metal wand on my EARS of all things, to tell her where my "blockages" were. I told her they were in my hammies at the time, but what would I know?

I also focused on running all my long runs and hill sessions with a minimum of 600m climbing over every 10k. This emulated the race course profile. I did a 4 day running camp around the UTMB course in late July to get a feel for the whole thing. Valuable stuff.

A July training day in the dolomites.

Thus, July and August were pretty much all about race preparation. I did not work, other than to prepare for the race. My days flew by. I went from one session to the next. Everything was about the race, but not in a bad way. Long runs in the heat. Recovery fueling and foam rolling. Home yoga via YouTube. Hill repeat sessions. Getting my good omegas with avocados, chia seeds, and Udo's Oil. Driving back to Chamonix to run the last section of the race again in training. Twice weekly strength sessions at the gym. Sleeping. Testing new gear. Travelling 1.5 hours on the highway to weekly massage and chiro. It was full-on, but never stressful, as I was sure to keep other pressures in life to a minimum. This was my experiment. Peak week was 212km with 13,000m climbing. Five years ago, I couldn't have imagined this much volume without being totally broken! I spent the last few days before the race up at 3,500 metres on the Italian-Swiss border. I stayed away from the hype of Chamonix until the last possible minute.

As I stood in the "elite" starting box at 5.50pm Friday night (see my previous post for the "elite start" prologue to this novel), an eagle was released from a balcony above our heads. The announcer dramatically emphasised to us how our preceding months of hard preparation, dedication, fortitude, and sacrifices had gotten all of us runners to the start line.The "elite" beside me was smiling but shaking her head. "Ummm, not so much. Ummm, nope," she was murmuring to the announcer's comments. I looked at her and smiled, a bit perplexed. I guessed she was under-trained. She said, "I just really, really like cake." It was nice to have some levity.

Well, I expect you get to eat a lot of cake after 169.4km + 9,889m of mountain trails. The UTMB course was made about 3km longer with 400m more climbing this year. More cake for all! The most marked change included a new pass, Col des Pyramides Calcaires after Col de la Seigne. Instead of a straight descent to Lac Combal aid station on the first night, we would start the descent, turn left, and climb up to another pass on the left before descending to the aid station. I had seen the pass in training - it was one of those really-big-rock passes - about 2 of the 3 km were running on giant slabs of rock that sometimes shift unpredictably under your feet. It was a bizarre addition to me - took away from the natural flow of the race and seemed there only to add more technical terrain to the event. One of the things UTMB had been known for was being more "runnable" than "sky-race-rock-fest." Oh well, it's their race and they can do anything they like with it :) The other change was one I realised at about 125k into the race. The "Bovine" climb that was on the 2014 map - and the one I'd run in the training camp - was a beautiful new runnable climbing trail. Previously, the race had gone up a very steep climb, hand-over-hand in sections, to come out above Bovine. Turns out they couldn't leave a good thing alone...they took out the nice new Bovine trail and put the more vertical and technical climb back in.

I'd roughly drawn up an "assertive" 29 hour plan, but given the new Col, I figured it might be 30 hours. And, of course, anything can happen over that amount of time!

Just as predicted, once the race started through the flat city streets and onto the undulating (but mostly downhill) trails to Les Houches at 8k, 300 people passed me. Most were huffing and puffing like it was a 10k race. It was predictable, but still confusing. All those people had done numerous tough mountain races in order to qualify for UTMB. They must know about pacing. They must know that going anaerobic 20 minutes into a 30 hour plus race means certain and intense suffering later.

Well, I needed to let go of their suffering and think about my own. Wednesday, two days before the race, whilst enjoying some high altitude tapering, I went for a hike. A 7 kilometre downhill (1000m) hike in snow. I had gone at very easy pace, but my fears at the time were realised now.... My quads were tired. This was going to be exciting; Thirty hours with tired quads. Oh well, I made my bed. Back at the rifugio at 3,500m on Wednesday, I was surrounded by the insane beauty of Matterhorn, Klein Matterhorn, Monte Rosa, and hundreds of other peaks in the land of snow and mountain climbers. I could have forced myself to stay in my hut all day for the sake of the race, but I would have regretted that. Every decision I made over the past two months was on the Principle of Least Regret. It's how I've tried to flow through life. Nearly every choice was made with "what's best for UTMB" at the forefront. That was least regret. But this time I knew the choice had to be to see more of this amazing place - or I would regret it. I hiked as slowly and easily as possible, as little as I could allow myself, but I had to explore! (Rolf says I should taper in Beijing for my next race...then I won't mind sitting in my hotel room so much.)
This is why I had to ruin my quads! Wow! Matterhorn and Co.

Back to the race. At Les Houches (8k), I grabbed a cup of water to throw over my head. It still felt like 28 degrees outside. The "water" turned out to be some kind of sugary electrolyte thing. Nice. My hair and neck crusted with the sticky solution. Carrying on, my poles came out and I started the first of 11 major climbs. I passed the summit, Le Delevret, and hit the lap button on my watch. 1hr40 lapsed, which was exactly what I had written into my splits. Disturbingly on track! I was just running to feel, of course.

Crowds lined villages and stood outside little mountain cottages. It seemed an excuse for everyone to party. The cheers, horns, and cow bells from wine-glass-touting, French-wig wearing revellers was quite overwhelming for me. I had to plug my ears a few times passing groups, but I really did appreciate their encouragement. (Just not so loudly.) The Europeans, almost without exception, treat every runner with what seems like a genuine respect for their athletic pursuits. They call you by name, looking at your bib. They shout, "Bon courage!" or simply "Courage!" or "Bravo Bernadette!"

At Saint-Gervais (21k), I ran into the aid station to the sound of "Wake me up" by AVICII. Though my theme song was Bittersweet Symphony by The Verve (great beat for working the poles up climbs), the AVICII song also resonated with me. I sang along, putting aside thoughts of what the crowd might think of this little redheaded weirdo. I skipped and danced down the chute into the aid station, trying not to let myself think too reflectively on the lyrics and the challenge ahead. Best to be a goldfish during an ultra ;)

Feeling my way through the darkness/Guided by a beating heart
I can't tell where the journey will end/But I know where to start...

So wake me up when it's all over/When I'm wise and I'm older
All this time I was finding myself/And I didn't know I was lost.

No need for warmth of fire on this night!
Leaving town in 362nd overall position (no idea at the time), I put my headlamp on. This was the one piece of equipment I had agonised over most and weighed on me most as an unknown. The LED Lenser SEO7 is my regular day-to-day headlamp. I love it. It's light and plenty bright enough at 220 lumins. But it seemed that everywhere I turned, people talked about 400+ lumin lights. There's just no need for that much light in running, as far as I can figure; it means a larger battery pack and thus a heavier set up - a more tired neck holding it all up. The rechargeable battery in the SEO7 only lasts 2 to 2.5 hours on max/reactive setting, but with the option of AAA batteries as replacements, plus the ease of changing one rechargeable pack for another, it's a very simple setup. I just modified the lamp by adding a piece of black elastic strapping over the head, velcroed on. This kept me from having to wear a cap all night or tightening the lamp uncomfortably so it wouldn't fall towards my ears. The headlamp was faultless. Exactly what I needed and I'm really happy I stuck with that choice.

I ran the gently climbing grade into Les Contamines (31k) to the first aid station where I could have crew. Rolf told me later about his adventures. First, he punched "Les Contamines" into the car's nav system and found himself heading west, then north from Chamonix, not west, then south. That didn't seem right, so he pulled out the gpx file of the race course and found out that what the race notes referred to everywhere as Les Contamines was actually Les Contamines-Montjoie. Make a mistake, end up in Geneva!

Notre Dame de la Gorge, easier seen by day in training
At the aid station, he was prevented from going in to the crew assistance area until they saw me come over the timing mat - it was too crowded to let crew in far in advance of their runner. Watching runners come in, he noticed all the red-faced people who looked like they were just finishing a good marathon. I went through in 279th overall position. Again, I had no idea of placement and wasn't fussed at that point, as my main goal was not to blow myself up in the first 30k - I expected I should come in at least 300th position through the first couple timing points. And I knew over 300 people had passed me in the first 8k. So, I was confident that I hadn't gone out too hard. Any later suffering couldn't be blamed on that! ;)

I filled my pack with Hammer Solids and a few gels to take me through the night, to where I could see Rolf again at sunrise in Courmayeur. I headed out towards Notre Dame de la Gorge and La Balme, the next aid station.

Though I had no idea how many girls were in front of me, I guessed at least 20. Maybe 30. The irunfar preview had profiled 4 women as potential winners (Picas/Spain, Mauclair/France, Chaverot/France, and Howe/USA). Nine more women were named for top 5 (Canepa/Italy, Maciel/Brazil, Fraile/Spain, Piceu/USA, Sproston/USA, Studer/USA, Alves/Portugal, Zimmermann/Switzerland, Borzani/Italy). Then another nine women were named to fight for top 10-15 (Benard/France, Bourassa/USA, Fowler/Australia, McRae/USA, Moretti/Argentina, Morwood/UK, Stephenson/Australia - I knew she was a DNS, Trigueros Garrote/Spain, Vilaseca/Brazil). Finally, 16 more women were listed to "keep your eye on." I got the briefest of mentions in there, which suited me fine. The main thing I took home was that there were 37 women in addition to me named to go top 10'ish. And there's always a dark horse or two.... UTMB was part of the Ultra-Trail World Tour, everyone was here to play, and any thoughts of a top 10 finish were meant to stay in my dreams.

On the climb towards Col du Bonhomme, I passed two women in the dark, Lisa Borzani and Nuria Picas, I believe. I also passed Ryan Sandes...who was walking back down the course, cheering everyone on. I felt bad for those already out of the race. After Col du Bonhomme, the climb continued to Croix du Bonhomme. I swapped batteries before the descent, as my light started to fade. Most UTMB descents aren't very technical, but they still have their fair share of rocks and roots and holes and are all almost invariably steep and switchbacked.
Atop Col du Bonhomme in training - race goes along left ridge traverse

I arrived at Les Chapieux (49k) in 202nd position overall (though still didn't know). I was passing people on the climbs, but usually losing a few spots back on descents. Though my descents had improved markedly with training, I had left half my quads at Rifugio del Guide Cervino on Wednesday :)

The quiet, dead-end road section from Les Chapieux to La Ville des Glaciers on the way to the Italian border seems not too sexy, but it's a spectacular valley. With the benefit of a full moon, I ran with headlamp off towards the Italian border. The crowds were thinning more and more and it was down to about 3 blokes near me. Very peaceful.

I love nearly all the climbs on this course. But then, I love climbing, generally. Col de la Seigne twisted its way up towards the sky, with the top marking the border. The wind picked up and I had to lean hard into it. It was a fight, but I reminded myself that every girl faced the same wind. Several blokes stopped to put their jackets on. But I wasn't finding it cold yet - not quite. The Montane merino t-shirt was doing exactly what I wanted (and staying stink free!) I had a feeling that on the other side of the col, given the strong headwind here, we'd find it dead calm. I was right. At the summit, the wind stopped. I tightened my laces before heading off to climb #4, the new Col des Pyramides Calcaires. I unknowingly passed Francesca Canapa here, I think, as she pulled out of the race.
The Col Pyramides climb - taken during my 4 day run

After Pyramides, we descended into Lac Combal (66k). I glanced back quickly and caught the amazing sight of hundreds of headlamps switchbacking down the mountain. I filled my water, swapped batteries in both headlamps so they'd both be fresh for the remainder of the night, and turned to go. I heard English behind me and turned back to see Sally McRae and Nicole Studer talking at the food table. I thought I'd passed two girls on the way into the aid station. They were commenting on the last two climbs. I got out of there. (Nicole went on to finish 13th female and Sally 26th.)

I enjoyed climb #5 to Arete du Mont-Favre, recalling the day I ran it with the training camp. I was now 160th overall (but again, didn't know). I only knew that I had passed at least 4 women. Whether others had passed me at aid stations, though, I couldn't say.

I took my time on the steep descent into Courmayeur. Over a few km, you drop about 800 metres. It's the kind of descent that can be a game-breaker, in my eyes. Several guys passed me here. I arrived at the aid station (79k) at dawn, after 6am. Though we had a hotel back near Chamonix, Rolf worried that the Mont-Blanc tunnel could be slow - or even get closed, which happens - preventing him from getting to Courmayeur on time. We had decided to book a second hotel in Courmayeur for him for Friday night, so he could at least get a few hours of slightly relaxed sleep. We warned the hotel he wouldn't be arriving until around midnight and they had said it was fine. Turned out, when he arrived, the doors were locked. He was lucky the owners were out walking their dog and saw him!

Though I knew I was running well to my splits and making good time through the night, Rolf was thrown off by the race predictors that sms'd him with my progress updates, suggesting I would arrive in Courmayeur at 8 am (not 6.30am as I had planned). He woke at 5.30am after about 4 hours sleep to an sms saying I was due in 25 minutes. He was so panicked, he forgot my pears! Darn for me! But I'm learning to be a more flexible runner and took it in stride ;)

I asked Rolf if he had any idea of my position for girls and he didn't. Only overall position, which the organisers were sms'ing him. He set about to try to gather data before he saw me again at Champex-Lac mid-afternoon. I happily picked up my bottle of Hammer Perpetuem again, as I find it much easier to take in liquid fuel than solid during a race (especially a hot one). Unknowingly, I was 132nd position and had passed Amy Sproston in the aid station.
View down to Courmayeur from near Refuge Bertone - taken during training, but nearly same time of day for me

Running through town, I came upon Aussie Gill Fowler, which was quite a surprise. She was having a bad moment, but I told her I fully expected to see her again...likely on the downhill into Arnuva. (She did make it there later, but that's where she dropped.) Courmayeur was still fast asleep and I enjoyed the quiet, imagining everyone snug in their beds in their ancient stone houses. My poles tap-tapped on the cobblestones.

The climb from Courmayeur to Refuge Bertone is another pretty steep switchbacking climb in forest that I was looking forward to. Approaching the hut, Sage Canaday passed me, walking slowly back down the course with a couple women. (He had smashed his knee earlier and ended up needing a helicopter to get off the mountain.) Just after the hut, I passed Ester Alves (8th place in 2014). I had studied her splits from last year. As I passed, she stopped and turned her back to me. I was happy to be running well, but it's very bittersweet when you know the pain of someone else's race falling apart. Ester dropped at La Giete, after Champex-Lac, around midnight.

Descent into Arnuva. Smile now, the sun is coming soon enough!
I was now 124th overall (but didn't know). I enjoyed every minute of the traverse to Refuge Bonatti, with the sun still hidden behind the ridge to my right. There was going to be heat suffering later. At Bonatti, I had my first indication of ranking. When the volunteer scanned my bib, she said, "You are in the top 100." It seemed a little higher than I expected. Turns out, looking at the rankings later, I was 122nd. So I have no idea why she said that.

Down to Arnuva aid station (96k), I saw a volunteer I knew, whilst filling my water. I had run with him at the training camp. He told me I was 9th woman through. That was the first I'd heard at all. I had two brief thoughts. One I voiced aloud. "It's still a long way to go - anything can happen." And the silent thought was, "Oh, crap, now I have to start defending a top 10 spot!" I didn't want to get into that kind of mental place until perhaps 30k to go.

Climbing to Switzerland! Passport? Check! :)
From Arnuva, we climbed to Grand Col Ferret, a beautifully closed in valley that ends with the col that takes us into Switzerland. Guess what? I like that climb, too :)

On the other side of the col, I tightened my laces again. I was surprised my feet weren't swelling more and I was getting a bit of toenail pain from them banging my shoes in the steeper descents. I also lathered up with sunscreen. It was 10:40am and I was well and truly into the sun. Expected high of 30 to 35 degrees. Luciana Moretti passed me - and everyone else - going down this descent like we were standing still. She was in her happy place and looked set to run through the lot of us. (She finished 6th.)

The descent to La Fouly aid station over 10k feels like forever - a joy on fresh quads. I was starting to suffer from the heat - there were no streams in this section for soaking hats and clothes. I was playing the "I don't want to eat but I have to" game. I began mounting evidence to rationalise a DNF. It was piling up quickly. I mounted a counter-offensive in my brain, as I knew if I quit this race, I sure as heck better withdraw from the 300 mile Yukon Arctic Ultra. I made it into La Fouly thinking I'd cool down a bit and get a mental reset. Unfortunately, the chief volunteer in the aid station was working with the enemy! I pulled out my sheet with elevation profile and splits to see how long the next section was (for me) and thus how much water I needed. She rushed over to helpfully point out the bulletin board in the corner with race particulars. As far as I knew, though, that bulletin board didn't have my splits on it. I said thanks, but that I just needed to look at my splits. She attacked again. "It's only 15km. It's not hard, it's easy."
There is no shade. Put the discomfort in a box.

She was clearly against me. Easy? Easy is laying down. Easy is having someone rub massage oil on my back at a beach resort. Easy is NOT running 15km of undulating sun-exposed trail at 30 degrees after 18 hours of running and a sleepless night. I made a tactical error and bit. I said, "It's not easy. It's hot."

She saw my weakness and closed in for the kill. "But you only have 61km left!" AGHHHHH! Up until then I hadn't thought about kilometres at all. I thought in terms of aid station to aid station and I counted the total number of climbs. I had 11 climbs to do and I was done 7 of them. 61 km of mountainous trails. That's FOREVER. I stammered. She smiled. "You've already done 110km!"

Wow. She was good. I've done 110km. No wonder I'm tired. And I still have 60 left. That's nearly half again what I've already done. Totally demoralising. I had to get out of there, fast!

I left La Fouly in 115th position, spotting what looked to be a girl coming in as I left. Next stop, Rolf at Champex-Lac, where I could hope to try that regrouping-resetting thing again :) I started off on the trail and thought of something a runner said to me recently. "I'm really good at putting my pain in a box," he had said. I started to recite, "Put your pain in a box." But I didn't like the negativity of "pain" (and I wasn't really in pain, as in "agony" pain), so I changed it to "Put the discomfort in a box." Every time I had a negative moment, I repeated, "Put the discomfort in a box." I wasn't even going to own it. It wasn't "my" discomfort. It was just discomfort. If I claimed ownership, it might hang around longer ;)

Champex-Lac during training camp

At Champex-Lac Rolf was indeed ready to save the day. He'd also just saved the day for a Japanese runner, whose wife's rental car had broken down on the road climbing into town. Rolf had picked her up and taken her to the aid station - much before I arrived. That runner must have been pretty close to the front.

Rolf was in town for a while, so he had been seeing the carnage of runner after runner come in and call it quits. People were milling around the aid station looking dazed. I saw several girls. It was hard to figure out who was still in the race and who was definitely done. Some of them probably didn't know, themselves, at the time! Rolf's understanding was that I was in 9th or 10th position. I thought it was 10th, after I had been told 9th at Arnuva and Luciana had passed me. There were five girls very far ahead and then Luciana just 5 minutes up, Darcy Piceu, 20 minutes up, Steph Howe and Fernanda Maciel a little further. We swapped shirts for me, giving me a completely soaked RaceReady one. I've found nothing that beats those in extreme heat. I shuddered with cold when it hit my skin. I had to fix a hot spot under one foot. I forced some calories in, repacked, and turned to go. I spotted Steph Howe, who was supposedly 30 minutes out in front. She had apparently been coming and going at the aid station, not actually leaving. I left before her and she ended up finishing 8th. Fernanda Maciel pulled the pin there, though I didn't know it at the time. Manuela Vilaseca of Brazil came in just as I was leaving. I smiled and nodded. Her crew person noted me. The race was definitely on between us two.

I knew there was forest ahead and looked forward to that. This was also the new-old climb, where they swapped back to the old, technical, steep, overgrown trail to La Giete, rather than the easier Bovine track. But I really didn't mind, as I was just happy to be in thick forest out of the sun. And my quads didn't mind hard climbing. It was the descents I was paying for :)

I arrived in Trient (141km) three hours after leaving Champex-Lac. I got to enjoy a few minutes with Rolf as pit crew again. He later shared another of his crew stresses - navigating along narrow mountain roads, through tiny towns and crowded carparks with many drivers who were foreign to the area - and likely it was the partner out trail running who was the one with the superior spatial skills - the one who would normally be the driver in such conditions....
UTMB roughly follows the TMB, roughly a 10 day hiking loop

I refilled my pack with 2 litres, thinking it was a 3 hour section to Vallorcine (10 minute drive for Rolf!). Manuela Vilaseca came in, her assistant greeted her, and sat her down, whispering and nodding in my direction. Manuela sipped at the juice from a fruit cup, listening to her crew, as I did up my pack. I was out of there. I felt confident with my climbing but less so with the descents. I had to create distance in the climbs.

Glancing again at my splits on the trail outside of town, I saw it was only a 2hr section. I immediately set to squeezing water out of my hydration pack. Mentally as well as physically, I didn't need a full 2kg of water to hinder my progress up the next mountain. I let some drain onto my quads and shins as I climbed, to cool me. I relished each switchback, as it put me more out of view of any runners behind. Like Manuela :)

The small bit of "lead" I'd built in my splits over 24 hours was eaten up that evening by the accumulated heat fatigue. I arrived in Vallorcine (151km) basically as I'd originally predicted. This was my last crewed aid station. From here, it was 3 hours+ to the finish line over one more climb. A rocky, technical one I'd done twice before. Rolf thought I was in 8th position. I was 95th overall.

I headed out for the gentle climb to Col des Montets, where we cross the road to climb the big one - Tete aux Vents. Rolf was there. He had confirmed with the race organisers that it was okay to see me as a spectator on course and he could share info with me, but couldn't accompany me or give me food, etc. He had received an update that showed I was in 7th place. He'd seen Manuela come into Vallorcine after I left. He didn't know how long she was there, as he left to catch me at the road crossing. He'd heard there was an American girl coming who seemed to be blowing through the field. I wondered at either Steph Howe or Sally McRae and certainly thought them strong enough to put in a hard surge if they came out of whatever bad patch they had been in. I hadn't heard anything of Sally since 4am at Lac Combal.

Tete aux Vents climb w/Rolf in training. Vallorcine below.
Time to run scared. The climb seemed to last forever. Though I'd done it twice before and loved it, this time it really did feel tough and endless, with even more hand-over-hand sections than before. Though I almost never talk to anyone when racing, preferring to stay in my own head and listen carefully to my body, I exchanged a few brief conversations with nearby blokes, all English speaking. It helped me get out of my head for a few minutes to forget about the pressure and enjoy the humanness of the journey. We all broke into our natural rhythms over time, spreading out along the hill. It felt like it must be after midnight - that the climb had been so slow I'd lost my goal of going under 30 hours on the new course. For the first time, I switched my watch to time of day. I'd only run section-by-section, from one split to the next. I actually had very little idea of time of day except by rising and setting sun. It was 10:10pm. I was convinced my Garmin was wrong. It must be later. I tried to figure out how it could be wrong, given that it reads off satellites. I saw it change to 10:11pm. There was hope not only to hold 7th place, but also for the sub-30 hour goal! I continued the traverse along the ridge top, where I felt quite confident in picking up the pace across big boulders I often find intimidating. I kept an eye out for headlamps behind and kept making myself fuel. I wasn't particularly nauseas, I just hadn't felt like eating all day in the heat, so it was a struggle.

I tagged in and out at La Flegere, the last aid station, without stopping. 93rd position. 7km downhill and 1k flat through town left. I started to push more, careful to dance on the edge of nausea without going over. The closer the finish got, the more I pushed. It's quite a zigzag through town before you get to turn the final bend and see that giant gantry. Done.

  • 7th female (5th in V1 category)
  • 29h 40m 11s
  • 89th overall of 2,563 starters
  • 1632 finishers + 931 DNFs (36%) - by comparison, last year's DNF rate was 35%
  • The 46.5hr cutoff was extended to allow runners to finish for another 40 minutes, presumably because of the high heat.

I was interviewed at the finish for a few minutes, but I wasn't very nervous, as I consoled myself by thinking no one nearby would be listening, given it was late at night, surrounded by a few French, with me speaking English. I found out later from my mum that she listened to the interview live online! Yikes! Glad I didn't know :)

I was kindly taken to get my finisher's vest and then led to another tent, because I had volunteered for a research study on hyponaetremia in drink-to-thirst athletes vs drink-to-a-schedule athletes. They pricked my finger for blood and took my weight. Then I sat down to answer their questions. Slowly, the world started to go black around the edges. Saliva pooled in my mouth. "I'm sorry," I said, "I'm starting to feel like I'm going to faint." I hated to say anything, as I expected dramatic overreactions. Instead, I got nothing. She asked again for my phone number for the paperwork. I tried again. "I'm sorry. I don't feel well. I might faint." She said, "It's okay. We're almost done. I just need your phone number." I couldn't talk anymore. I couldn't make the numbers come out of my head. "Country code....6...plus 6...1.... I'm sorry, I have exercise associated hyponaetremia." Thinking in my head, that's funny - not hyponaetemia, that's what they're studying! What's the word, what's the word? Blacking out.... She says, "Would you like to write it?" I took the pen and wrote the number - it looked like I had advanced Parkinsons, it was so shaky. Then I remembered what to do - put my head on my knees... Ahhh, relief. Exercise-associated hypotension. That's it, I thought to myself. Low blood pressure caused by sitting down after 30 hours of running. Calves weren't pumping blood for me anymore. No one cared. But with the blood coming back to my brain, I remembered the words for my condition :) I sat with head between knees, alone, for several minutes before standing to go.

Well, at least they didn't get overly dramatic about it ;)

The race result seemed somehow a bit numb to me until Sunday evening at the presentations. I sat on a dirty step in a patch of shade, watching the 5 women and 10 men taking the stage. UTMB has said that from 2016, they'll recognise 10 women on stage. Regardless of my finish result, I was disappointed they didn't change their rule on that for this year. A song came on the speakers, loud enough for half the town to hear.

Feeling my way through the darkness/Guided by a beating heart
I can't tell where the journey will end/But I know where to start...

So wake me up when it's all over/When I'm wise and I'm older
All this time I was finding myself/And I didn't know I was lost.

I saw myself running through Saint Gervais. I saw the 27 hours that lie ahead of me. I cried, alone, on that step.

UltrAspire Omega pack (8ltr)
LED Lenser SEO 7 (x2 at night)
Leki Trailsticks
Inov-8 x-talon 212s
Compressport trail shorts
Icebreaker undies
Montane Primino short-sleeve shirt (140g merino wool)
Champion sports bra (the model with no inside seam at the sternum!)
Compressport full socks with 2Toms BlisterShield and SportShield inside
Ryder sunnies
Garmin 310XT (x2)
Perth Trail Series 'tubie'

Other mandatory gear not worn: Icebreaker thermal top, Icebreaker gloves, Mammut waterproof overgloves, Montane rain jacket, Raidlight rain pants, beanie

At Col de la Seigne during camp - old route went straight down valley. Col des Pyramides Calcaires is on the left.