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

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The Ultra Titanic Mountain Binge Week

Yesterday I posted my photos of the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) 4 day running camp. I hadn't written "Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc" anywhere. Just "UTMB." My mum was unaware of my upcoming race. UTMB is a 170km + 10,000m anti-clockwise loop trail race around Mont Blanc/Monte Bianco, from France to Italy to Switzerland and back to France. It starts Friday night August 28th.
The UTMB race roughly follows the "TMB" hiking route

So my mum looked at my photos and asked, "Why did you do this Ultra Titanic Mountain Binge over 4 days?" And I thought that was just a perfect summary of my last 8 days of training!

The camp was run by a French company and most documentation was in French, though they did provide things to me in English, including a description of the course/camp itself and what was included. They promised I would be given a "reconnaissance of the UTMB route, physical preparation and nutrition advice, recommendations regarding material and equipment, mental training, technique coaching, race management, talks by trail runners about their experiences, etc." I figure I'm fairly advanced in most of the general nutrition and mental stuff, but I was looking forward to any tips I could glean, particularly from someone with specific UTMB experience. Turned out that although the guide was a very good runner, he has never done UTMB. And his English was not fluent to allow for complex conversations. But I did get one tip on tweaking my pole-technique, by listening carefully to the French, and that was worth a lot!

Morning clouds burning off. Mountains playing peekaboo.
There were 6 French blokes on the course (at least three from Paris and one from Toulouse) plus the guide. Most are planning to do UTMB, but a few have other race plans somewhat similar and thought the camp would be good training. They had great attitudes and were good people to spend 4 days with (as generally all trail runners seem to be). I certainly missed a lot of the conversation, due to the speed and complexity of their French compared to mine, but overall I'm very happy in my own head, so didn't mind that I wasn't in on all the laughs. Mountains and rivers and clouds make great conversational partners for me :)

Our days looked something like this:

5.50 am: wake up
6 am: breakfast in rifugio/refuge/hutte
6.30 - 7 am: finish dressing, packing, lubing bits and pieces (my Montane merino tech-t became my shirt of choice for multi-day running, due to its no-stink properties...wish the blokes had some merino wool!)
7 am - 6 pm: run. This typically included a one hour lunch stop, which I was not in favour of. It's too long. One is just encouraged to sit around eating too much, which makes it harder to get up and run again...invariably up another mountain. The guys also had a lot of sit-down stops and walk breaks - again more than I would have liked, but I'm in the freak category, I know.
6 pm - 7 pm: check in to refuge, queue for showers, unpack
Happy with the gear! (And another mountain climb, yippee!)
7 pm - 8 pm: mass dinner in dining area of refuge (as a preferred gluten-free, sugar-free, vego type, I had brought some emergency food with me, which I was very glad for! I also brought chia seeds to try to keep up some anti-inflammatory omega fatty acids and poured olive oil on my salads. Glad to be "home" now to my Udo's Oil!)
8 - 9 pm: espresso for me (most blokes were off to bed right after dinner). Then foam rolling, tennis ball rolling, and a quick charge to Garmin and phone if I could find a socket.
9 pm'ish: bed, avec earplugs (dormitory living)

By the end of day 3, the mileage and elevation were accumulating rapidly because I was sheepdogging the whole time (running to junctions/summits, then back to the back of the pack). I saw that I was headed for over 200km and over 12,000m gain in 4 days. I had to listen very carefully to my body for any sign that "training" had become "breaking." I developed a nasty knot in one calf on day 4, but I could massage it out and run easily for another hour until it would tighten again. I think a few years ago I would have had no idea to try massaging it out and would have just assumed I had to keep running (limping) with the knot...which could have easily become a tear, I bet.

Day 4, approaching the top of the final climb, Mont Blanc comes into view
In terms of the UTMB route itself, the "toughest" parts will be different for many, but I expect the 5 passes between La Balme and Courmayeur (roughly 40k point to 80k point) represent one of the toughest. This will all be in the dark for me and I'm happy enough with that, as there are plenty of more beautiful parts of the course to enjoy after Courmayeur :) There are a few very nasty steep descents, which I'm glad to know about, as they can be soul-destroying (due to their brutal nature on toenails and quads). I'm glad to have a sense of the terrain and the placement of aid stations. I also got a good sense of my pace up particular climbs. I ran 3 of the 4 days with poles (putting them away on day 4, just to slow myself down). My pole technique really improved after the guide's tip (should have had that for the dolomites VK!).

So, after 212km + 13,000m for the week, I was theoretically off to binge on another massif along the Swiss-Italian border - Monte Rosa. I had signed up for a 50km + 4000m "training race" with an Italian mate. However, at the time I signed up, I misread the UTMB training camp info and thought it ended Monday (it ended Tuesday night). That gave me just 3 days to recover before a very steep, technical race. And I hadn't realised I'd have done all the extra sheepdogging miles. It seemed I had now done all the training I needed in regards to fuel, poles, weather, and muscle-building during the UTMB camp. I couldn't find a smart reason to run the Monte Rosa Walser 50k.
Gabiet 'hotel', day before Monte Rosa race. Couldn't see 100mtr on race day!

The day before Monte Rosa Ultra was beautiful and we did some hiking up over 3,000m to join the local ibex with the views to the amazing glaciated peak at over 4,600m. I saw some of the race course trails. Steep, narrow, and rocky. The weather was forecast to include heavy rain and 12 degrees all day. I mentally confirmed that running the race in treacherous conditions was a risk I didn't need to take. However, I now had a reason to at least toe the start line - wet weather gear testing! My Italian mate had piked, given the bad weather. But it was just what I needed! (And truth be told, I was tired of training every day in the European heatwave this year.)

Thus, at 5.50 am, I stood at the start line in the dawn light, fully clad in my new Raidlight Extreme rain gear (sadly, Montane gear just isn't to be found in local shops) and very expensive Mammut waterproof overmitts (essentially a thin waterproof outer mitt to go over normal gloves). I certainly got a few looks from other runners! My Italian mate, who decided to pike on the all-day run in the rain, also gave me the look. When I said I was UTMB gear testing, he said, "Okay, but the gloves...really, they are too much!" I disagreed :)
Uber light and I can run in it. "Waterproof" only goes so far, though!

As planned, I ran at easy pace for the first 23km + 2300m of the race. There wasn't a mountain view to be had. It was all clouds and mist and rain, but it was gorgeous. We crossed rivers and my x-talons enjoyed the muddy sections. I got to figure out how waterproof my new gear is, how hot vs breathable it is, how to best layer underneath it, how my pack moves more readily with a slippery jacket on, and so much more.

When I arrived at the 23k aid station, I handed in my bib, thanked the vollies working in the rain, and decided to run the 13km downhill on the small mountain road to my hotel. From my hotel room window later, I could watch everyone coming in to the finish, including all those I had played leap-frog with all morning (I'd typically pass uphill and then some blokes would pass me again on the descents - I wouldn't play the slip-on-your-butt game like them, as it wasn't my A race.)
Shame I couldn't see the whole course, but greedy-greedy never gets!

From the safety and comfort of my hotel room window ledge, I played the "shoulda/coulda/woulda" game. It appeared to be a less competitive race for the females this year and it seemed that I "coulda" finished in 3rd place at my training pace. My ego liked that. Dangerous and annoying thing, that ego. The other thing that coulda happened was a slip in the mud due to fatigued legs, followed by a tendon tear. Pick a tendon, any tendon. I'm sure I have plenty of tired ones right now. And I'm about to add more speedwork. Get ready, tendons! :)

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