The UTMB OCC 56 KM: Part II
The UTMB OCC 56 KM: Part I
Thank you to Trail Butter for awarding me an Adventure Grant to help make this race possible.
My goal going into the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) OCC 56 KM was to place in the top 10. We knew this was going to be tough because, as the popularity of trail running continues to grow, the race gets more and more competitive every year. For example, three years ago, just under 8hrs was top 10, but last year it took under 7 hours to crack the top 10. Lauren Coury was the top American last year and with a little poking around we found her Strava race splits. She ran a smart race to come from behind and nab 7th place with a 6:53. We decided to use her splits as a guide for my race, so that I wouldn’t go out too fast and be able to run strong at the end. I am familiar with most of the second half of the race because many of the later miles are the same as the Mont Blanc Marathon course which I raced in 2017 and 2018.
Orsieres to Champex-Lac – 6 miles
The sun was already up over the mountains and warming us up by the 8:15 AM start. It’s tradition for the school children to line the streets through the village and offer high-fives as the runners go by. There are so many people and we are all smashed up against each other in the narrow streets of the Via Francigena (the ancient pilgrim route from France to Rome). The goal for the first 400 meters is to not get trampled.
I successfully stayed on my feet as we meandered our way through the town. The road up and then down to Som-la-Praz was a short climb and then a long fast downhill. Runners were flying by me left and right. It didn’t bother me as I knew I was going plenty fast based upon my guiding splits. As soon as we bottomed out the climbing began. On the course profile, the climb up to Champex-Lac is a little baby bump, but in reality it was quite steep.
As we got close to the aid station, I pulled my bottles out and was ready to go. I was very efficient, got my water and took off. A group of 4-5 women who passed me on the downhill were still getting water as I headed out. Throughout the race I mostly went back and forth with Celine Gallardo of France. I would catch her on the climbs or at the aid stations, but then she would always find another gear to pull back away.
Champex-Lac to Trient – 10 miles
The climb from Champex-Lac was the first of three big climbs and the one that I hadn’t seen before the race (the second of the big climbs I previewed the week before the race and the last of climbs I knew all too well from the Mont Blanc Marathon). I was running behind a group of women when suddenly the course veered into a cattle barn. I didn’t know what was going on because this was not a designated aid station. It was so dark I had to take my sunglasses off to see. There were a couple of tables with jugs of water to fill our bottles. It was a hot day so I was drinking a lot to stay on top of hydration. I wanted to take advantage of a water source and not risk running out. Because I didn’t know this was coming up, I didn’t have my bottles ready to go and I took more time than I wanted to top off my water supply. I was bummed because my group of women were already flying down the mountain when I came out of the barn.
At the Mont Blanc Marathon last year, Tad went into the aid station tent and was yelled at. From that we knew that crew were only allowed outside the entrance or exit from the tent. We had read a warning prior to this race that any crew assistance outside the designated areas would result in a 10- minute penalty. Knowing this, Tad who had seen me 3 time around Champex-Lac, arrived at Trient and checked out the aid station situation prior to me arriving. We had run this part of the course the week before but the map wasn’t detailed enough to figure out what was going on in this little town. He discovered that coming into town the race didn’t simply cross the road but went down to a grassy area and passed through a small pedestrian tunnel before climbing some steps to a church with the aid station tent was just down the road. Tad waited on the downhill section, following my last split at the top of the climb via the LiveInfo app. He cheered on Emily Schmitz (our new friend from the day before) as first American, put his phone in the front pocket of his pack and awaited my arrival. As soon as he saw me, he got some quick pictures, told me what was going on with the tunnel below so I knew how I’d get to the aid station and took off across the road as a shortcut to meet me there. As he was running, one of my soft flasks flew out of the front pocket of his pack. He bent over to pick it up and sprinted to the aid station. He was stopped at the front by officials, only runners past this point. He gestured about giving me bottles and they directed him into the tent. As I arrived in the tent, he yelled my name so I knew where he was as I filled my bottles and he was promptly yelled at to get out of the tent. So much chaos! He exited the back of the tent, took out my flasks in case I wanted them and set his pack in the grass. Before I left a car pulled up to the grass beside Tad so he moved his pack so they could park. I started talking to Tad as I came out and told him I didn’t need my flasks. He reminded me to keep moving so I was off and started the climb up to Les Tseppes.
Unbeknownst to me, as soon as I left, Tad packed up all his stuff and was getting ready to head to the car when he realized he didn’t have his phone. In all the waiting around and then the chaos it’s easy to forget if you had it, left it in the car, put in your pack in a pocket, etc. He knew he had the phone and tore through his pack with no luck. He then ran back to where my flask flew out on the road, but he surely would have heard the phone drop out there. No luck. He ran to the grassy parking lot he crossed after seeing my come down into town, looking and looking with no luck. Back to the aid station which was packed with people hoping someone would see him looking through the grass and hand him his phone. Still no luck, ugh! He gave up, just hoped after the race whoever found the phone would get hold of him and headed to the next aid station.
Trient to Vallorcine – 6.5 miles
Knowing it was the biggest climb of the race, Tad and I hiked the climb to Les Tseppes the Saturday before the race so I knew what to expect. As I was climbing, there was a man on the side rubbing out his leg. I asked if he was okay (in English of course), and he said “Yes, just cramping.” The English speaker turned out to be Nike Trail Team’s Pat Werhane. We chatted a bit which was a nice distraction and Pat made it up the climb just behind me, but I didn’t see him again once we topped out. Sadly, the cramping got the best of him and he ended up dropping at Vallorcine.
Unfortunately, the sheep were not out to greet me at the top, but that’s okay. I am glad I got to see them on our recon run. The downhills are much less technical than the Mont Blanc Marathon course, but still challenging because they are so long. I was making my way down when I heard, “On your left!” which is odd because no one in Europe says that. It was USA’s Chris Mocko flying by. I was really surprised to see him, especially coming from behind. I followed him for a short way until he started yelling, “Sorry, sorry, I didn’t mean to do that!” He accidentally cut a switch back and I followed him. I stopped and started to turn and go back up, but the men behind me said to keep going down (unless it is explicitly marked off, Euro racers cut the switchbacks). We got back on the course and apologized to those around us. Chris took off once again and that was the last I saw him.
Vallorcine to Argentière – 5 miles
I entered the aid station behind Celine again, saw Tad again, and got some water and coke again. On my way out, Tad said if we get separated at the finish to meet him in front of our hotel. I thought that was an odd thing to tell me here, only later did I find out he lost his phone but didn’t want me distracted thinking about that during the race.
I exited the aid station ahead of Celine, but she soon caught me and went by.
This is a really runnable section of the course though uphill, but also very exposed. I started to feel the heat of the day and walked more than I wanted. I felt like I had to keep catching my breath.
I also made a very rookie mistake. In Vallorcine, I filled my flask with Coke, not thinking that the carbonation was going to make make it expand with air. When I went to take a drink, I gulped a bunch of air before I could get to the Coke.
Argentière to La Flégère – 4 miles
I entered Argentière about 30-60 seconds after Celine left but was through quickly with a quick stream of water over the head and more coke.
This is the third time I have raced up Flégère and it is the strongest I have ever felt during the climb. That doesn’t mean it was easy by any stretch, but I never once got sick or had to stop like in 2017. I caught back up to Celine, but she found another gear before the trail opened up to the ski area above 6000 ft and took off. Racing at altitude when you live at sea level is hard.
La Flégère to Chamonix - 4 miles
The wide dirt road out of Flégère soon turns to very technical trail which required a lot of focus to stay on my feet. It’s not until you come by La Floria (a small restaurant nestled on the side of the mountain) that the trail smooths out into a very runnable service road. On the final downhill after La Floria, Cris Santurino came by me. I passed her again and she encouraged me up the final scaffolding bridge which allows the runners to cross a main road without holding traffic. Once we hit the final kilometer on asphalt she sprinted ahead (with a sub 6-minute mile!). She kindly met me at the finish line with a big hug and congratulations.
Coming into Chamonix was such a special experience. When a runner comes by, people stop whatever they are doing to clap and cheer which alerts the pedestrians ahead to get out of the runner’s way as you are running through pedestrian only roads and town squares.
I was 19th female and 2nd American woman in 7:13:50. I placed 121st overall out of 1,605 starters. Emily finished as first American in 5th with an incredible 6:29. Celine finished 16th in 7:06. Full results here.
Here's how internationally competitive the race was, the top 25 runners hailed from 13 different countries: New Zealand, Spain, Japan, USA, Belgium, Brazil, Switzerland, Columbia, France, Chile, Italy, Great Britain and Iceland.
This month I ran three very tough races which is very atypical of me. I raced the Volcanic 50 on August 2nd and the Inferno Half Marathon on August 17th. I’m sure I still had fatigue in my legs from these races, but, I do not regret anything. Using the intuitive eating concepts I practice as a Registered Dietitian, I’ve been more mindful to not only be focused on the competitive parts of racing but to look at my running as a whole and the values I want to embrace. I ran these two races prior to OCC not just to compete, but to challenge my anxiety and to run up a really cool mountain, respectively. This may have affected my final result at OCC, but it has fulfilled me to a much greater degree than if I had solely focused on OCC alone.
My overall thoughts about the OCC:
My fueling and hydration were good throughout.
I had no big issues and no major low points. I felt steady and positive the whole way, just missing that extra gear over the last part of the race.
My body is not sore, but my lungs and chest feel worked. I don’t know if this is the effect of living at sea level and then trying to compete above 6,000 feet.
I was not nervous or anxious once which is a huge accomplishment for me.
I was 13 minutes off my goal time of 7:00:00.
I know there are a lot of Americans already booking their accommodation for UTMB 2020. Me too.
On the way back to our Airbnb where we stationed ourselves to spectate CCC and UTMB the next two days, we stopped once again in Trient to look for Tad’s phone with no luck. There were a couple race volunteers still packing up for the night and they helpfully called the head of the aid station for a lost phone, but again no luck. Back at the Airbnb, Tad googled “lost android phone” which took him to a find your phone page. He logged into his account and a map came up with a big circle in Trient, last seen: now! It was getting dark so we quickly devised a plan where I’d be on the computer in Google Hangouts and he’d take my phone so he could tell me when he was there and I’d trigger the ring 5 minutes even on silent alert from the computer. He jumped in the car and Mario Andretti’ed the winding road up the mountain to Trient. The circle was right over the aid station. He arrived in the completely dead town, parked the car and jumped out. He got to the grass in front of the aid station and messaged me to trigger the alert. It was ringing per the website, but he didn’t hear anything. He snuck into the closed-up aid station tent and looked all around, still nothing and still no sound. Finally, at the back of the tent he faintly heard his ringtone of Surf Rider from Pulp Fiction. He ran out of the tent to where he was standing waiting for me. The sound was muffled but coming from the car that had pulled up. Someone had found the phone and it was in their car and the door was unlocked! He opened the car door, but the sound wasn’t any stronger. He shut the door, laid in the grass and stuck his arm fully under the car, patting around until he connected with his phone. It was our second OCC miracle (see toilet paper reference in Part I of this blog report)!
Thank you from the bottom of my heart to all my sponsors and support team: