The UTMB OCC 56 KM: Part I
Thank you to Trail Butter for awarding me an Adventure Grant to help make this race possible.
The day before The Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) OCC 56km, I got an email from the International Trail Running Association (ITRA) that I had to report for a mandatory hemoglobin check as part of the 2019 QUARTZ Event program of the UTMB. I had done a blood test before the 2017 Mont Blanc Marathon so I arrived in Orsières promptly at my scheduled test time with the expectation that I would be met and taken to a private room where a nurse wearing gloves would draw a couple vials of blood as was done the last time.
This was not the case. I arrived at the building where the test was to be conducted at 5:15 pm and walked into a dark gymnasium where UTMB event organizers were preparing for race bib distribution. Tad and I looked all around for signs but could not find any indication of a special room for the QUARTZ program. I started asking around, but the only feedback I received were blank stares. No one spoke English. I took out my phone and showed them the email I received. A man glanced at it, didn’t really read it but gestured to follow him. He led me to a storage closet with stacks of folded tables. He made motions that seemed to indicate we needed to move the tables out of the room. Then I realized he thought I was here to help him set up for bib pick-up. I was getting flustered and starting to break into a sweat because I was getting increasingly late for my appointment and wasn’t sure I was in the right place.
I walked outside to look up the person’s phone number who had emailed me and ran into fellow American, Emily Schmitz. She was frustrated because she had been waiting all day to pick up her number. The website said 4 pm but the pre-race email said 6 pm. They would not give her her number until 6pm and she had a bus to catch to Martigny and then to Chamonix. Because the race starts in Orsières, Switzerland and ends in Chamonix, France, racers could decide if they wanted to pick up their packets in Orsières or Chamonix. Orsières is such a small town that had we signed up to pick up our packets in Chamonix, we would have had a different experience. But alas, this is part of racing internationally. The best you can do is to try to go with the flow and embrace the oddness.
Finally, after making several phone calls and texts and passing my phone around to strangers, a UTMB personnel came up to me and said he was here for the test. Thank goodness! I followed him into the gymnasium, but instead of leading me into a private room, he set down his little kit on one of the tables and asked me for a finger. I was concerned because the situation hardly seemed sanitary and my hands were to dirty from trying to communicate. I said, “should I wash my hands before we do this?” He shook his head and said, “no, no better for you no wash your hands.” I shrugged. Alrighty then. With a quick clip of my index finger he took a drop of blood and inserted it into a small machine that would read my hemoglobin number. The results came in under a minute and he told me I was perfect and sent me on my way.
Now that that order of business was complete, I had to get my bib number and mandatory gear checked. We had to wait until 6:00 P.M. before they saw runners. Once the doors opened, Emily hustled in line first and I got in quickly behind her. We were going to drive her to the Martigny train station so that she would not miss her train to Chamonix. Gear check went smoothly, and we were out of there by 6:15 PM. Emily made it to the train station, and we found our AirBnb where we were staying just the night before the race.
By this time, I am getting pretty hungry, so I wanted to just arrive, eat and relax. We got to the building and the host met us at the door. In broken English, he said something to the effect of the room wasn’t clean yet. I was holding it together, but when I walked into the apartment and saw a dirty bathroom, uncleaned kitchen, and no sheets on the bed, I freaked. Tad tried to calm me down, but I was really upset to be paying so much money to stay in a place just overnight (we’d be out at 6:30 am) that wasn’t even prepared. Thankfully, we had our dinners pre-made in a cooler so we started eating as the host started vacuuming and cleaning around us. I couldn’t even look at him, I was so mad. After 45 minutes he deemed the space clean (it was not), and left us alone, finally.
I went into the bathroom and saw that there was no toilet paper and started yelling again. Tad wrote to the host trying to be as clear as possible (who know what “toilet paper” translates to in French and all the signs for public restrooms say WC). “My wife is in the WC and has no paper.” Thankfully, the guy came running up immediately with a nine-roll supply. That should do it. I got my kit set up and breakfast situated for the morning and crawled into bed. Poor Tad slept on one of the uncleaned beds, but we found him a clean sheet to sleep on top of.
I always sleep well the night before a race which is odd because I never sleep well otherwise. I got up, had my breakfast of Trail Butter, bread, banana and lots of coffee, and we were out of the apartment by 6:30 am. The drive took just short of half an hour, but we made it in plenty of time and found parking on the side of the road. The ambiance was more like a road race than a trail race as it started on a road in the middle of this little town. I’m speaking for all runners here, the number one priority for before any race is to use the bathroom. For over 1,500 runners they had about 15 toilets. The lines were so long; I waited in line for over 30 minutes. When it was nearing my turn, I could tell that there was no toilet paper, so I sent Tad on a mission to find something. Anything.
He returned 10 minutes later and excitedly said that he found a roll of toilet paper just sitting on a table in the adjacent building with no one to claim it. It was a UTMB miracle! I did my business and then started my warm-up. There was no way I could use the bathroom again with the lines as they were so I was concerned about having to stop in the middle of the race. About a half mile into the warm-up, just as I was about to turn around, I saw a porta-potty with just two people waiting in line. I took my chances and got in line. It was probably the nastiest one I have ever seen, but racing is about overcoming, so I held my head up high and went in. Then the door wouldn’t shut. I asked, or more like mimed, to this woman to please stand in front of the door for me. She kindly acquiesced and as I exited, I thanked her profusely in as many languages as my brain could come up with at the time.
Back to the start, I lined up in the Elite corral and huddled with the American crowd of Emily, Cole Watson and Pat Reagan. As the ominous music played loudly through the speakers a bee flew over my head and I thought, “Damn. I forgot my EpiPen.”
Trois…deux…un… Chamonix, here I come!
Part II: The race and post-race analysis on the way.