Courmayeur–Champex-Lac–Chamonix


It’s been difficult to decide how to write a race report for CCC. On one hand the event is so amazing I don’t know how I could even do it justice through words. On the other, what came out of me on that day brought so much disappointment that it’s still hard to wrap my head around it. I don’t want to dwell on the bad and I hate excuses but I also feel that my memories of the good are clouded by the tug-of-war going on between my head and my heart for many of those hours. I could say something expected like “the tough days are when you learn the most about yourself” but that’s not the case. This wasn’t a test of my character or anything deep like that – it was simply an instance where shit goes wrong and you suck it up and deal with it through the end.

The only surprise of the day was that I couldn’t physically get what I expected out of myself. I shouldn’t be shocked based on how my body was feeling in the month leading up to the race. I managed to convince myself that by running less than half of my planned miles I would go into this race rested. That by avoiding hills my legs would be fresh for the mountains. And that by avoiding speedwork, well heck, I would just be fine. Stop stressing over the training and trust your body and your heart. Even after the race I believe all of that to be true. I needed my hip and pelvis to be “good enough” to race 101k and in my mind I was there. I knew that after the race I would pay dearly but honestly thought that I could race a solid effort and ignore the pain which is one of my strengths (or is that really a weakness?) to produce a performance I was proud of. So when my body responded the way it did I felt betrayed.

But that’s already too much whining. We all know what it feels like to be let down. Even if everything would’ve felt perfect on race day I still think I would’ve been humbled by those mountains. So let’s get out of my head and move on to the wonderful event that is Ultra Trail Mont-Blanc and all of its grand races. Many people have questions about this race so I will try to make this an informative race report.

Mandatory Gear

One thing that stands apart with the UTMB races is the extensive list of required gear. Luckily I was able to bounce my questions off race veteran Zach to see just how strict they are with the specifics of the gear. Turns out the answer is “very”. For example I had to buy 2 new torches (I now own FIVE) because the three I had are rechargeable. The requirement is for 2 torches with replacement batteries. I’m glad Zach gave me the heads up on that one because Amanda was turned away at gear check for that very reason (she was then also turned away because her emergency blanket was 1 inch short. 1 inch. Have you see the size of this girl? Way smaller than the average racer. So yes, they’re that strict). Another Zach tip – for waterproof gloves use medical gloves. The vinyl gloves were way lighter and took up much less space!

Once I had the required gear sorted it fit easily and comfortably into my new Ultimate Direction Hardrocker vest.You arrive at packet pickup with your full pack and at the first station they check your passport and print out the list of required gear with a random selection of 4 items that you need to show. From there, airport security style, you grab a bin to remove your 4 selected items for the next checkpoint. Mine were waterproof jacket, waterproof pants, long tights, and cell phone. Once you clear that checkpoint you retrieve your bib along with a 2nd chip. At the following station a volunteer attaches that 2nd chip to your pack. There is no switching packs during the race. Thanks to the excellent organization of this race I breezed right on through the registration process. However that was not the final stage of my gear check which I will get to in the next section.

Start Line

The start line is as epic as the videos portray. There is so much energy and excitement it’s tough to stay calm! For the CCC we are bussed to our start line in Courmayeur, Italy – another beautiful town! We were greeted with sunshine and mild temps – a welcome change to what was predicted for that morning. With over 2100 starters in this race they send you off in waves. I’ve heard stories about people getting into their corral over an hour before the start because of the crowding. Even in the elite corral it was difficult to get a good spot so it does pay to get into your corral early. While waiting in the corral 3 officials came to me for another gear check – this time I had to remove my pack and pull out all of my gear on the list to show them before they placed a sticker on my bib confirming my check. This was a random selection check and I of course had no issues with it, but I must admit that having to re-pack everything at the start line ratcheted up my anxiety a bit.

With fellow Syracuse runner Scott English in Courmayeur

Once we’re set free it’s an exciting run through the town before hitting the trails for our first climb of the day. The town is a steady stream of cheers and cowbells, and once we moved past the crowds I noticed…silence. Well – heavy breathing – but everyone was quietly focused on the task at hand as we were already climbing and would be without a break for the first 6 miles. There is no thinning out during the first climb to Tete de la Tronche. Once you hit the single track you climb at the pace that is set by those ahead of and behind you.

Those views though…

Before I summit the first climb, let me tell you about how amazing the scenery is. It’s a lot to handle really – you’re focused on your footing, what’s going on in front of you, yet you can’t help but look around to soak in some of the most amazing views I’ve ever seen. Am I really here? We then had some descending to conquer before a nice long stretch along the ridgeline which offered more breathtaking views as the helicopter was buzzing low to capture footage of the runners along this exposed stretch. We made our way down to the Arnouvaz aid station before heading out onto our second climb into Switzerland to the summit of Grand Col Ferret. The amazing views continued along this relentless climb. Partway up the climb a French runner had stepped off the trail and was visibly crying. I stopped to see if she needed anything (newsflash: by this time I already knew my day wasn’t going to shake out). I really just wanted to give her a hug – I was feeling her pain for sure.


Let’s not forget the weather.

About ¾ of the way up the climb those stunning views abruptly ended when we were suddenly socked in by a heavy fog. The temperatures plummeted and I went from hot to frozen in an instant. I remembered the warnings about putting on your gear as soon as this happened but I knew I had to be close to the summit. Upon arrival it was so incredibly windy and you could only see feet in front of you. There were medical stations at the top of each climb and this one offered a volunteer who was holding our gear as we struggled to put on jackets in those whipping winds. After what felt like minutes wrestling my jacket into submission I then fumbled to put gloves on my already frozen fingers before starting the descent. It would take a few miles before I got feeling back into my fingers. That was my first taste in how rapidly the weather would change throughout that course.


Compared to the UTMB runners I’d say we had it super-easy. But I can’t even count the number of times my arm warmers went up and down, and my jacket came off then back on. Into the later, pouring rain hours I would plan exactly what wardrobe changes I would make coming into the next aid station only to show up feeling indifferent, shrugging my shoulders, and pushing on wearing the exact same thing.

An hour before our start a text was sent letting us know that there would be a weather-related course change. For our final climb we would not be going all the way to the peak in Chamonix. I’m not ashamed to admit that with the day I was having I was not at all disappointed with the altered course.

Crew

There is plenty of aid stations and they’re very well stocked. Yes it’s true – there is an abundance of cheese and sausage at the aid stations. I guess people eat it?!?! I was happy to see bananas and watermelon to supplement my stash of food. I heard not-so-great things about the shuttles that transport your crew to the 3 stops where they are allowed to assist you so I was neither shocked nor upset when I arrived at Champex-Lac and couldn’t find Jeremy or Lauren. I looked around for a bit (it was a very busy station), casually filled my bottles, and then realized it was time to move on. It was 17k up and over the next climb where I would hopefully see Jeremy to replenish my Skratch drinks and nutrition needs.

Sure enough they were ready for me at the next stop as a crew member is allowed into the tent 10 minutes prior to your runner’s arrival. Jeremy rocked it – all of my gear was at the ready and he was full of positivity. It was a really lonely day out there so it was great to just see and talk to someone I knew! Even though the next stop was only 11k further (but up and over another climb) they planned to be there for me just in case. It was a complete downpour and only one person was allowed in the tent which meant Lauren had to wait outside. I definitely had some moments of guilt for what they were enduring for me. It is way easier to run in bad weather than it is to crew. I think I even told him they didn’t need to go to the finish line for me which he of course brushed off as nonsense. It’s not an easy race to crew when you have to navigate long bus rides. I’m pretty damn lucky to have had them there!

Ode to the Poles

I was never keen on the idea of using poles in a “running” race. Even after I broke down and bought them it was still struggle to train with them. I ended up relying on them way more than I ever could’ve imagined. They served me more as crutches – especially on those downhills. I’m not sure if I would’ve finished without them. If I had it would’ve tacked on a few more hours. I never want to use them again. At least I hope I never have to rely on them in that way again. But now I do see and respect their purpose. Especially at a race like CCC. Thank you Black Diamond Carbon Z Poles for carrying my unstable a$$ all around those mountains, and for taking a beating when I was really angry about my dependency upon you. After all that you only left 2 small bruises on my hands 😁

Always Have a Plan B

As I slogged my way up that first mountain my hope was already tumbling backwards behind me. Coming to terms with my Plan B was the best decision I could make – enjoy the experience and finish the race. Once you let go of your expectations (which was by far my toughest obstacle of the day) it frees your mind to focus and fully commit to your backup plan. Well look at that, maybe I did learn something from this race after all!

Merci Beaucoup!

My deepest gratitude goes to Jeremy and Lauren. Not only did they face some last-minute obstacles just to make it to France, but it’s a huge trip and time commitment for little ol’ me. I am humbled to have friends that are willing to give themselves so selflessly to my endeavors. I had door-to-door service before and after the race because of them. They walked 4 miles from Chamonix to my hotel in the middle of the night to retrieve the car and have it waiting for me at the finish line. Seeing them along the course gave me the push I needed. I will always be grateful that they were there for me in such a big way.

Another huge thank you goes to Altra. Everyone on that team is always looking out for me to make sure I have everything I need. My brand-spanking-new pretty blue King MT’s were sadly caked in mud (and manure?) by the end of the race but who cares what your shoes look like when they perform like champs! And thank you to the Altra France contingent for their hospitality.
Thank you Muir Energy for keeping me stocked in the cleanest and tastiest fuel for tackling mountains. I have 4 words: Passon Fruit. Pineapple. Banana. Seriously. There are many delicious flavors and I enjoy them all but I can’t get enough of that tropical cocktail.

Thank you Skratch Labs for keeping my electrolytes in check with flavors I crave all day long.

And many many thanks to each and every one of you who reached out to me in multiple ways throughout this trip. I was feeling the love for sure!

Now it’s time for a little break time off while I work out some issues. Only time will tell what’s next on my schedule but I can guarantee that I am hungry to get back out there and run the world!

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Loon Mountain Race Take 2

*** Notice***
By reading this race report you hereby agree to remind me of said race report in the event that you see another short distance mountain race on my schedule.

With that out of the way, let’s talk about Loon Mountain Race. 6.6 miles with over 2,200 3,351 feet of vertical gain, the last kilometer of which hits grades of 40%+. It is intense and challenging – right up my alley! However this year all I could hear in my head was “this isn’t fun.” Perhaps Loon Mountain Race should be a bucket race list and I have checked it off not once, but twice. Enough for me!

I took a shot at this race in 2014 not knowing what I was getting myself into but looking forward to a new challenge. That’s exactly what I got! I placed a disappointing 21st but was hungry to take another shot at it. The need for redemption is always strong in me. In 2016 Loon Mountain Race was again the USATF Mountain Running Championship which meant the field was going to be stacked deep – just as it was in 2014. However this time I decided to throw some specific training into the event in hopes of bettering my position in the final standings. So after 1 week recovery from Cayuga Trails 50 I hopped into a 3 week training plan for a short, intense mountain race. It’s always exciting to throw a different training block into the mix and I was really looking forward to these 3 weeks. My overall run volume did not drop from my lead-up to Cayuga but the intensity increased as well as adding more doubles to the schedule.

After 1 week my training hit a wall much like the one you hit when you make that right-hand turn and face the Upper Walking Boss on Loon Mountain.

upper walking boss
A seemingly minor issue in my lower leg was causing a lot of pain and swelling which would only behave with short, easy, flat runs. Local athlete and ART extraordinaire Scott Field was ready and willing to jump in and provide relief. So much so that I was able to run 2 track workouts the week of the race which turned out to be my fastest track workouts of the year! I found myself itching to race a road 5k instead of a mountain race but I was still excited to give Loon another shot expecting to both race and feel stronger this time around despite the lack of actual hill training in the 2 week lead-up.

I was definitely not in the racing state of mind the morning and felt stressed. I knew I would need to get a decent warm-up in before the start – the climbing begins almost immediately so you better be ready! After about 10 minutes of warming up I felt over-heated and downright exhausted so I headed over to the start line to hang out and wait. Save it all for the race. For me a terrible warmup normally leads to a good race. I was excited to see Katie O’Regan at the start line and it was a relief to hear that someone else had the same goals as me and also the same uncertainty. Neither of us was there to podium – we just wanted to see what we could do. Sayard Tanis also made her appearance to the start line looking primed. It was great to see so many PA runners in the mix!

I had my sights set on top 20 and when the race started that’s exactly where I placed myself in the pack. The first climb felt like we were crawling but was also pretty manageable. In 2014 the women raced a shorter 4 mile course. Turning onto the Nordic Section was new territory for me and turned out to be my favorite part of the course (because it wasn’t totally uphill!) The trail was completely shaded with rollers and a bunch of muddy trenches to run through. Now we’re talking!

Once you pop out of that section you cut across the mountain and prepare to climb for almost the remainder of the race. It was helpful to find markers on the course letting you know how many miles were left. I wore my GPS but never even had a chance to look down at it! With 2 miles to go we rounded a corner where a group of male racers (they started an hour before us this time) were standing to cheer us on. One of them told me I was top 20 but as I started the 2nd hardest climb of the race, Upper Bear Claw, I turned around to see a rather large group of women right behind me. And sure enough the passes started as I was barely moving up that hill. Somehow these climbs felt way tougher than last time even though I felt better equipped to handle them. Wrong!

Finally I reached the gondola where you get some relief before the final, monstrous, Upper Walking Boss. “Haulback” is all downhill from the gondola to the base of the final climb and “haul-ass” is what I did on this section. Even though I knew a top 20 placement was long gone, and after that it didn’t really matter to me where I finished, I still wanted to push. No point in saving my quads so I bombed the hill! And there ahead I saw that final turn where you abruptly face the wall. I knew I would be hiking the whole thing so it was time to put my head down and get it done. My calf felt like it was going to explode at this point and I briefly considered calling it a day here instead of risking damage. On that climb there is no way to approach it gingerly. I immediately realized that was the dumbest thought ever – the Upper Walking Boss is what makes this race epic!

Every time I looked up it hurt just a little more when you cannot see an end in sight. One female had already passed me so I stopped looking up and decided to instead look back. There were a few women behind me but they seemed to be moving at the same pace as I was – can you even call that a “pace”? This motivated me to keep pushing and hold onto my spot. I got really excited to see the “500 meters left” sign only to realize that 500 meters up that mountain meant I was still nowhere near close to the finish 😉 But now we were getting into spectator zone and the guys did a great job at motivating us up that climb!

As I drew closer to the finish I looked back one last time to hear one of the guys say “no one’s close – you got this”. Another guy shouted “1:09” in an attempt to get me to push for a sub-1:10 finish. That was just what I needed to hear as I tapped into my empty tank for one last push to the finish. I didn’t have a time goal for the race but having someone motivate me to look up at the clock and inspire me to finish strong was huge. I finished in 1:09:38 which put me in 25th place. Katie hit her goal of top 20 snagging the 20th spot, and Sayard was right with me finishing 27th.

That race downright hurt. Brutal. But it was great to connect with friends I haven’t seen in way too long and I also got to meet fellow Topo athlete Kyle Robidoux. He is beyond amazing!

Now don’t let me scare you away from this race. Loon Mountain is a course you should definitely experience if you’re a mountain-lover. Acidotic Racing does an excellent job organizing and hosting this event. I mean, already by the end of this race report my mind is churning – should I go for redemption on my failed redemption? And this is where I go back to the top of the race report to read it again .