Darkness deserves gratitude. It is the alleluia point at which we learn to understand that all growth does not take place in the sunlight.
Climb up too Col de la Seigne. Photo: Damiano Levati
I’ve never wanted to quit a race so bad, not because of injury – even though my left calf could not function for 3/4 of the race – but because I was so mentally and emotionally broken. During the death march from La Fouly (108k) to Champex-Lac (140k) I questioned everything. I hurt immensely, I cried, I had a conversation with a cow, I was broken beyond repair. I kept telling myself, the alleluia point would come, transcendence would ascend my crippled spirit and I would start to fly; it never came to be, but the perseverance to continue on, made the journey and finish very special.
Having the race play out smoothly and feel strong would have been ideal, but what fun is that. The experience I had soldiering around the UTMB trail was incredible; I learned more about myself, I fell more in love with my family and became even more grateful for my body and life. Winning could have been fun, but everyone who made the trip around the mountain, achieved all they needed out there. I’m very content and satisfied with the effort it took to circle Mont Blanc, climb 33000ft and end up back in beautiful Chamonix to celebrate the journey.
Starting in Chamonix at 4:30pm, the town was electric, I wandered down from my home at four trying to stay calm as the crowds and runners vibrated with excitement. We took off as the town roared with cheers from every corner, the streets were lined with spectators high-fiving and encouraging us on. We passed a bar where a guy was handing out cups of beer, I passed this aid station, but appreciated the joy and ambiance of the town. I was already in about 25th place and comfortable with a nice mellow start to start the journey, I knew there’d be plenty of time to race as the day and night progressed.
We were in Les Houches (8k) lickedy-split and heading up the first climb of the day. I was stoked with my legs as the climb felt effortless and in no time a crew of us reached the top and we’re bombing down hill. I took the descents easy as I wanted to save my quads and also be cautious of a bum ankle I sprained on a Mont Blanc trip the week before.
We ticked off kilometers quickly as we continued down. I eventually felt someone running extremely close to my side and some kids shouting in french to me. I thought to myself that the person to my right was almost going to trip me; I turned to my right and started to move out of the way, when I realized that the close “runners” were not people but 3 goats grinding out 5min k’s. These goats meant business and apparently train in the Alps a lot. Their bellies weighed and jiggled more than our packs and their feet were quicker too as they passed myself, Vagin Armstrong and Miguel Heras who eventually had an amazing 2nd place finish. I laughed out loud as thee others were startled by the goats, it looked as if the goats might beat us all!
The goat race was heating up; I thought they would tire, but then 20 minutes passed by, with them still side by side. Arriving on 30 minutes they were looking worn, they stopped to regain their composure at a bridge blocking my way. I encouraged and scooted them on and they found a second wind! I passed them just a moment before we entered the streets of Saint-Gervais (21k) to a generous applause from the crowds; the goats got a standing ovation! I however pulled away and they were the last goats I would race with on this trip.
Les Contamines. Photo: Irunfar
It was fairly flat as I cruised the 10k over to Les Contamines (31k 1170m) to see my crew for the first time. I did have a tiny low patch in this stretch as I felt a little dehydrated from the quickish start. So I tried to hydrate more when I arrived to my crew. I came into the aid station calm and focused on getting all I needed as I would not see my crew again till Courmayer 77k in.
I slammed some kombucha green tea, it was delicious, I drank some other green tea, I drank some coke, I wanted to be good and caffeinated as I started my run through the night. I felt solid and ready to take on the night, I kissed my wife and was out remembering everything I needed but my extra 400ml of Coke; crap I thought as I could not turn back now.
Photo: Christophe Aubonnet
I continued on in my own rhythm moving at a decent pace as the night started to creep in. The next few aid stations you could smell a ways away with the smoke from their fires glowing and drawing me in and through Notre Dame de la Gorge (35k 1215m). The crowds cheered as the fires blazed, I was focused as I hiked upwards to our first real climb of the day to the top of Croix du Bonhomme at 2443 meters high and 44k into the race. I moved well to this spot, but was already starting to feel the creeping feeling of stiffness in my calf that would progress throughout the night.
I crested Croix du Bonhomme and started my sluggish decent down, it was full on dark, I was not very trusting of my bum ankle and it was fairly technical for me on this section. It went from grassy slopes with ankle busting divots and meandering washed out out animal trails everywhere. Other sections had wet slick rock that was always slanted in a manor that would not gift an actual foot placement and push off, leaving me timid and embarrassingly slow as I wanted to keep my ankle happy for at least the first half of the race. I was passed quickly by Anton – who had a great race and might of won without the achilles and hamstring issue – I wished him good luck and to keep flying and that I was hoping to see him again down the road. Jonah Budd also sped by as they both could navigate the trail much quicker. They easily gapped me, leaving me to embrace the night running my own race which I was very content with.
Crossing river from Les Chapieux. Photo: Damiano Levati
I entered Les Chapieux (49k 1549m) to our first gear check of the night. They showed me pictures of the gear and I pulled out my tightly wrapped and never used gear to prove I had the mandatory accessories. I briefly saw Anton as he moved out and I took a moment to drink some coke and put on another head torch, feeling good but wanting to not have the leaders gap me too much.
The next section was way more douche-grade road than I anticipated. I tried to run this section at a decent clip, trying to keep the leaders lights in sight and before the higher altitude and steepness decreased my running to a hike. As we finally retreated from the road and started moving the switch backs up to Col de la Seigne (60k and 2516meters), I could see some head torches cruzing up the hill and after I neared the top I turned around to see the zig-zags of lights swerving below for as far as I could see. It was insane to look at the string of head torches behind, very cool to race with so many like-minded people.
Hiking hard up the climbs I was grasping for a solid breath. My lamp would catch many a cows eyes; I stopped to absorb the moment, the Big Dipper lit up the sky to my left, the stars were luminous and glorious. Night running under star-light is the bomb! Mentally I was in a good spot, but I was not moving as fast as I would have liked, I told myself this was good as there was plenty of running left.
Descending to Lac Combal (64k) came and went, I did not see a lake. I grunted up to Arête du Mont-Favre (68k 2435m) tired and sore, but excited to push on. Nothing spectacular but the stars, the mountains were hiding, getting their beauty sleep to give us strength in the morning. For me there was not much sleep, I’d lost my beauty and had many kilometers to go. Uff da.
It was a steep decent into Courmayeur (77k 1200m) and I took it down hard. The altitude and calf were cramping my style in the ups so I tried to do my best to catch up on the downs. Not very successful as I was 30 minutes back from the leaders and was feeling worn from the first half of the day. I tried to regroup, get inspiration from seeing my wife, fuel up properly and restock supplies for the rest of the night. I drank more kombucha, green tea, and some more coke while my wife changed the batteries in my head lamp. I tried to prepare myself for the battle ahead but not sure how I was going to gain that much ground on them.
I was finally on the part of the course I was familiar with from reconning this section with my wife and Joe weeks ago. I knew the rest of the course well and knew I needed to run a bit on the road before a steep hike up to Refuge Bertone (82k 1989m). I was feeling ok at first, but just destroyed within minutes of starting the climb. I was mentally exhausted at the idea of trying to catch up, I was disappointed with myself, I was frustrated with my calf; so I took a poop. This was the start of a low patch that continued on for much of the race.
Recon above Grand Col Ferret. Photo: Joe Grant
I entered Bertone defeated, delirious, deflated and destroyed. I laughed out load as I sat on the table as a bench, shaking my head and not knowing my next move. I thanked the volunteers for their support, I carried on figuring I was out of the race but could at least enjoy running in the Alps. So that’s what I did, I ate a tasty Justin’s nut butter and contemplated life, I took a VFuel gel in for good measure. I swayed with the wind and marched like a drunken sailor. I told myself, this is what I came here for, to be broken, to not know the way out, but to have faith that this was just a low moment with good times soon to follow. Oh the humor.
It finally leveled out and I started to run ever so slowly. I could see head torches closing in on me from behind. I think I ran a little faster. I entered Refuge Bonatti (89k 2010m) with a guy from Spain, I looked up and saw Lizzy Hawker, I told her I was broken with a smile; she laughed and told me to keep going. The aid station guy told me that I couldn’t take coke out of the aid station, I told him that was not true, I took a sip and some to go. I’m dying here, damnit, let me have some bloody coke, is what I wanted to say, but I just smiled and went on my way, coke in toe. Then I continued to climb.
The night fog. Photo: Ian Corless
The next part of the trail went decently smooth, just some sweet single track that I could run fairly well and enjoy the night. Arnuva (94k 1769m) came pretty quick after a few descending switch backs, I could see the leaders on the next big climb, figuring they had about an hour on me, and so it goes. I took my time trough the aid station and started the big climb that would bring me to the highest part of the day and into Switzerland.
I hiked with intention, but could just not push off well; I was perturbed with my calf issues but tried to just focus on the next ribbon ahead. It’s all I could do, 20 meters, ribbon, 20 more, ribbon, like a treasure hunt to the top. As I progressed to the top it started getting foggier and windy, I thought of putting on my verto jacket to block the chill, but was basically just too lazy to get it out. I pushed on, munched on some gel and eventually reached the top of Grand Col Ferret (99k 2537m), I said hi to volunteers, had my bib scanned and with cold joints creaked my way down.
By this point of the night I was pretty much done, I didn’t see much need to continue on, I was almost positive my gastrocnemius was going to explode out of its sheath; it didn’t but it was pretty pissed off. All I wanted to do was stumble my way to my crew and go back to Chamonix and drink some vin. That was the plan which seamed reasonable, I just needed to get off the mean-ass mountain.
With nothing better to do I continued to run down, down and down. Out of the fog and many a switch backs, finally hitting the pavement leading to La Fouly (108k 1598m). I stopped in the middle of the road to pee, at least I was hydrated. I came to the aid hoping to see someone I knew and drop out. Man was this place packed with good people, friendly volunteers to deliver coke, Killian and Emile were there to encourage, so were Bryon (Irunfar) and Ian (TalkUltra) to snap some shots. Lots of my North Face family were there too, one of the sweetest people in the world, Lisa was there to encourage me and tell me my family was excited and ready to see me at Champe-Lac; it was all enormously encouraging but I still wanted to quit.
Photo: Christophe Aubonnet
I couldn’t form the words, “I quit”, so I marched on; figured I would suffer and contemplate life just a little more. This next section of the course was one of the longest stretches of my life, to be honest it’s a little foggy; I was doubly blocking it out and also just bumbling around mumbling to myself. In the mist of my gloom I somehow rolled through Praz de Fort (117k 1151m) and was on my way through the mushroom forest trail climbing to Champex-Lac (122k 1477m), to see my crew and end the day and go home.
My blurry eyes could not focus much, I remember a TV crew following me up the climb and asking how I felt, I had other words to tell the camera but I responded with “I was crushed but enjoying the beauty”, I was mostly just crushed. Saying that out-loud hit a nerve and I finally hit the final wall. I made it maybe another kilometer before I rested my head against a tree and cried for a moment, my mind was shattered and my will broken. After a good moment with the tree I proceeded to laugh at my weak self and stumbled on.
I came upon some cows grazing in a field with the backdrop of glowing, newly sunrise lit mountains; three of the cows turned their heads and I believed to have asked me “what the hell was I doing”? I agreed, I did not know, but I sure as hell wasn’t quitting. I finished the climb and entered the aid station focusing on no one, but my loving wife.
I sat down to drink some random things and complain to her about my night. She listened and told me it wasn’t much farther. She suggested meeting up 10 miles down the road at the next crew point and I agreed. As we were restocking my pack and getting a seconds rest, my North Face teammate and friend Mike Foote entered the station looking tired from the night as well. I believe we were in 6th and 7th respectively and I was stoked to see a familiar face.
Champex-Lac. Photo: Irunfar
I left the station a little early than him knowing the next section was flat and rolling before a steep climb up to Bovine 132k (1987m). I moved with purpose, knowing each minute was closer to finishing this exhausting task, I still doubted I would finish, but I was considering the notion; this was a good sign.
After the rolling section I retreated to power-hike mode and climbed one of the last three big climbs to Chamonix. Reaching the top I had the duty of navigating a handful of huge horned bull-like cows blocking the trail. I asked politely if they’d move, yelling and gingerly maneuvering around hoping to not get kicked, they obliged and let me through with Mike clipping at my heals and finally a vision of another runner 10 minutes in the distance.
We all moved at about the same speed to Trient 139k (1300m), not really getting glimpses of each other, but aware we were all close. At Trient aid station I believed to have seen a bunch of people but not really sure; I tried to move somewhat quick, drink kombucha, green tea and some coke. To my surprise Anton was in there sitting down, I encouraged him, but unfortunately his legs were more than bothersome at that time and he’d have to call it a day. Huge bummer as he was really having a strong race, I’m sure he’ll be back to finish what he started next year.
This next section I’ve run twice before and the last time being the Saturday before the race. I knew it well, was dreading the final climb and decent but excited to be so close to making the finish a reality. I said hi to my crew, got some updates of the leaders from my good buddy Martin Gaffuri and took off. The climb came quick and I powered up at a reasonable clip, Foote was catching up quick and by the top of Catogne (144k 2027m) he had caught up and we were able to chit-chat about our time in the mountains. It felt so good to run with someone.
Velocrine. Photo: iRunFar
We talked some and also both mentioned there might not be much talking but a lot of grunting as we painfully started the long down hill into Vallocrine (149k 1260m), we laughed some too. I was enjoying running with someone, but as the real decent started and down was the only chance my calf felt good I decided to push the last few kilometers. I bounced down good and upon entering Vallorcine, Martin let me know I was only a few minutes back of Julien and 4th place. I ran through the aid making sure I had every last item needed and a good luck hug and kiss from my inspiration to finish, Krista and Tristan. I told them I would see them soon and took off like rocket, a slow broken rocket, but non-the-less moving.
I tried to move quick and block out the pain and as I came close to Col des Montets (153k 1451m) I saw Julien. Tired and not being able to say much, I said good job and kept running with anything I had left. It was getting warm out and there was one hard climb left. Knowing two really good climbers – Julien and Foote – were on my tail, I pushed the last climb up to La Tete aux Vent (157k 2130m) with all I had. I was completely in my own world and struggling with every step. I vaguely remember seeing Killian and Emilie again enjoying the sunshine and cheering for me to keep moving. It was good to see all the smiling faces, but the steep grunt took every last drop of courage left.
I reached La Flegere (160k 1860m) and only had 8k of decent to the finish. I painfully tumbled my way down just wishing and hoping for the end to be near. Finally popping out to the road I was cheered in by Guillaume filming the finish and enjoyed the last kilometer to relax and soak in the fact I was actually going to finish. I never thought I was going to accomplish this one, not for over half the race; I’ve never had so much doubt in myself as I struggled again and again to make peace with how the day was unfolding. I’m extremely happy to have finished, end up in 4th and overcome adversity to cross the line in beautiful Chamonix. It was a satisfying run to say the least and one amazing trip for my first time in Europe.
I’m so grateful for all the love showered over me from family (Tristan, Krista, Debbie and Bob), friends (Martin and Anna), and everyone else cheering me on all day and night long. But more than anything, I’m grateful for the selfless love of my wife who spent our 5 year wedding anniversary crewing me all night, when she should have been taken out to a nice restaurant and given diamonds to let her know how much she means to me. Instead she spent the day and night sleep deprived, taking care of me and our son and smiling and loving being in the mountains and catching glimpses of me around the way. Thank you so much for all you are.
Photo: Fabrice Van De Cauter