UTMB

The emotions and experience of TrailRunning Academy athlete Valentin Bălănescu during the 170 km of the UTMB.

Article written and lived by:
Valentin Bălănescu

It’s Friday, 26.08.2022, 5.53pm, and after the pre-race moments of presenting the favourites and encouraging the participants, the famous Place du Triangle de l’Amitie in Chamonix has gone quiet. 

It is a profound silence, in a square that a few seconds ago was clapping its hands in jerky unison, a shift from one extreme to another, from agony to ecstasy, as all ultra races are. After a few seconds, the silence is shyly broken, one note at a time by Vangelis and his Conquest of Paradise, the official anthem of the UTMB. 

You can feel the energy of the song permeating the sea of runners. It’s the moment when I realise I’m HERE. This is the moment I’ve been dreaming of for 5 years. The moment I’ve planned for, trained for, injured for, recovered for, woken up early or slept late for, run dozens, hundreds, thousands of miles for, watched documentaries, read books, magazines, analyses for, it’s finally here! 

Start- Valentin Balanescu – UTMB

The road ends here! Or is it just the beginning?

I close my eyes and feel the vibration of the market, the growing impatience given by the adrenaline of the moment, and the images of the MIUT DNF in April, the last ultra race I participated in, flash through my mind. 

I’m not afraid of the 171km to come, but even as my mind is challenging me, I feel motivated and eager for the adventure that is about to begin. Then I see myself still in the square crossing the finish line, hand in hand with the kids as I promised them. 

Ultra has taught me that any doubt, the mind’s attempt to test your resolve, can be defeated by positive counterexamples. I am reassured and convinced that all will be well. 

Robert’s words come back to me:

“you’ll see that it will be just fine, if you don’t make any serious mistakes”. 

That would mean that in 36 hours I’d be back at the finish with the kids by my hand.

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10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1 Gooooooooo! I’m somewhere between the last ones, on the church stairs, and from the steps, I can see the first ones breaking into a run. 

The crowd starts to move slowly, at about the pace of entering the subway at Pipera, Bucharest Metro Station, in the evening around 6 pm when everyone finishes work. After about 3 minutes they get to the start line, but it’s another 100 meters or so of walking due to the crowds.

There are only about 2800 runners at the start.

After crossing the start line the atmosphere is incredible, people are crowded on the sidelines, cheering us on and making an atmosphere I’ve never encountered before even in a football stadium. The whole of Chamonix is at the start, in the square where the route coasts and then strings along the centre to the exit of the town. When the cordon ends, I look at the clock and we’re already at km 1.54.

Déjà the early jitters have passed, I turn off the GoPro and concentrate on what I have to do. The first 8 km to Les Houches are flat and I do them in 54 minutes. Les Houches, just like Chamonix is celebrating, the whole town is along the route, with trumpets, vuvuzelas, music. Everyone is cheering us on and you have to be very strong to stick to the plan, as the atmosphere can steal you away immediately and you don’t realise when you’ve hit the gas.

Le delevert- Valentin Balanescu – UTMB

The start is as planned: easy, with the main aim that after 50 km I’ll be fresh and from there I’ll gradually increase the pace.

Even if the HR is a bit high, around 165, it’s normal considering that I didn’t warm up and I’ll definitely lower it on the next climb. 

From the climb, behind, you can see the whole valley and Les Houches, over which darkness is starting to settle slightly.

I’m in the middle of a never-ending Indian line that doesn’t seem to end either in front of me or behind me. The pace is steady, and the pace has slowed, so I can enjoy the incredible views around me: the white peaks of Mont Blanc, the reddish patches that the sun leaves on the crest at sunset, and the infinite greenery among which the path makes its way. 

I focus on nutrition and hydration, which over many races have given me problems. I am aware that if they go well, then the race is 95% assured. 

At Saint – Gervais, at the end of the first half marathon, I arrive in 3 hours 35, and I am super fresh. I walk economically, without pushing at all. All good.

First half marathon check, 7 to go!

Then an easy climb to Les Contamines. At least, it looked that way from the race profile, as I don’t know the first 81 km to Courmayeur. So I got the information about the route from the descriptions of friends who have already done the race or from youtube videos where I analyzed the specifics of the route. 

In reality no surprises, so I arrive at CP at km 32 after 5:25, easily covered. In CP they have noodle soup. I try it with bread and cheese: love it at the first bite. Although I’ve never eaten soups through competitions before, it fits very well and the last piece of the nutrition puzzle has just been found.

Besides from here to the end, the nutrition will be simple but precise: on the route – I alternate gels with either Snickers or Lidl’s chia and fruit puree, and in CPs: noodle soup, bread, cheese, oranges, watermelon. 

Meanwhile outside it has darkened, and the trail is very clearly visible from the fireflies ahead aka runners’ foreheads. 

The silence of the mountain is broken only by those walking in groups and chatting amongst themselves.

As the nutrition is going well and the reflex is already formed about every 30-40 minutes I eat and about every 10-15 minutes I take a sip of water, I can enjoy the clear sky full of stars. 

I’m not sleepy at all, although the hours pass one after the other so I don’t resort to caffeinated gels and, at Robert’s advice, I also stay away from Coke. 

After Les Contamines we pass through a park that looks like an amusement park and end up in an LED-lit Hoka tunnel.

I’m a little weirded out that I’m not in the mood to turn on my GoPro, but on the other hand I feel the moment giving me wings: #FlyHumanFly and the peace slowly increases until the climb begins and I temper myself. 

Next comes the climb to Col du Bonhomme, which is veeeeryyy loooong. It starts to light up and in the valley, you can see the long line of hundreds of headlamps. It’s the perfect time for a mountaintop breakfast and a breathtaking view. I sit on a boulder at the edge of the path, take out my sandwich, and watch the sunrise millimeter by millimeter behind the mountaintop as the column of runners passes me by.

There’s the stillness of the mountain, broken only by the murmur of rushing water in the valley, and all the pressure I’ve been feeling all week has vanished as if by magic. 

Imagine there’s no past, no future too! 

Although in CPs I move against the clock, now it feels like I would never leave the place, even though I’ve finished eating and don’t feel tired either. On the contrary, I feel the energy and once I get going I effortlessly overtake, one by one, a bunch of runners to the Col de la Seigne.

The view is dreamy and I don’t even know when I cross Col de la Seigne, Lac Combal, Arete du Mont-Favre, Checrout – Maison Vieille. I’m on schedule and everything is going better than I would have hoped.

 

Although it’s half of the competition I don’t know, everything went perfectly.

The first challenge comes on the last part of the descent to Courmayeur, when you enter the forest and for about 3km run on a trail where your feet sink into the dust. As you run quite hard the dust is kicked up into the air and you can hardly breathe. My eyes, lips, and throat are starting to sting from the dust which I think has even gotten into my bloodstream. It’s also gone through my gaiters into my shoes and although before this stretch I thought there was no point in changing shoes, now the dilemma has been solved.

In Courmayeur, Marius is waiting for me on a street that I can hear from a hundred meters away cheering me on as he sees me.

He runs with me to the entrance of the CP where I clap hands with the kids and forget about the dust that had just ruined my zen earlier. Ramona, my wife, helps me grab the drop bag, and refills the gels and smoothies for the second half. She cools me with my cold spray, I change my shirt and shoes and in between shakes I finish my protein shake and eat the noodle soup she brought me. 

I feel like I’m at Formula 1 and hurrying onward. 

I say goodbye to the support team on the way out and head off through the already burning sun towards Bertone. It’s probably around 25-27 degrees but with no shade, I’m melting. Luckily there’s a fountain on the way where we all rush to cool off. I get straight under the tap, wet my cap, and pour 3 glasses of water over my head. Restart!

The climb to Bertone is, due to the heat, the hardest of the competition, but I tackle it at a measured and steady pace. I don’t speed up, but I won’t stop either. 

Near Bertone, a group of tourists is watching the race live on their phones and I make the announcement: Kilian crosses the finish line and has set a record: he is the first to go under 20 hours. Blanchard is due to show up in a few minutes, he’s also entered Chamonix. I ask them about Robert and they tell me he’s 10th. 

Great, he was down in 11th and he’s in the top 10. He’s got time to move up 1-2 places 

Up at Bertone I find a bunch of runners stretched out in the 2 tents that keep the sun out. I eat 2 pieces of oranges, fill the flasks with water and move on. It’s a hot day all the way to Arnouvaz. From time to time the path climbs along the mountain and enters shady areas: a blessing! You just want to sit your butt on a rock and wait until the evening to go further. But I’m on plan and it would be a shame not to keep up the pace given that apart from the discomfort created by the heatwave, which I’m treating with lots of fluids, the rest is going better than I could have hoped.

I pass through Bonatti and Arnouvaz in the same scenario. The climb to Grand Col Ferret, the border between Italy and Switzerland, begins and the scenario changes. It’s shady and as we climb to the top the wind starts to blow harder and harder. Fog also appears on the horizon, so it’s time to activate the sheet. 

It’s déjà vu from last year’s CCC 100km race when we encountered the same kind of weather.

From here the descent to La Fouly begins, my favourite part where last year at the CCC I committed by pressing the accelerator pedal too hard. I learned my lesson and planned to be thoughtful, to run to my heart’s pace: no higher than 140 bpm. 

The kilometres go by one by one and after La Peule everything changes: the second race starts. A stone slips out from under my left leg and I feel the ligament stretch and an instinctive warmth engulfs it.

 

I stop, it doesn’t seem to be that serious, I can stomp and it doesn’t feel like anything serious. I move on. But as time goes by the pain slowly but surely increases. 

On the ascent to Champex-Lake it starts to hurt with every step I take. I realise that the goal has changed from sticking to the plan of finishing in 36 hours to finishing in a maximum of 46 and a half hours which is the time limit. I grit my teeth and think that I have almost 18 hours left for the remaining 45 kilometres. In Champex I don’t stay long, I’m afraid of getting cold and aggravated, plus I don’t have to, nutrition is still going well, I fill the flasks, drink soup on the go and eat 2 quarts of oranges.

Next up is the climb to La Giete which is quite steep. Last year this stretch to the end gave me the biggest problems, when the nutrition didn’t work and I was sick. Now the situation is different, so on the climb I walk steadily up to the bearable limit of pain, but without taking breaks. The problems come after Giete, where the descent is steep and the pain is unbearable because I can’t flex my left leg at all. I walk slowly, like a snail, using my sticks as crutches and making room for everyone who seems to fly past me.

From time to time I alternate the way I step on my left foot, trying as much as possible not to flex: either I step on my heels, lean on the sticks, or step sideways, putting my right foot forward and then my left without bending it.

An ultra race is a lot like a human life: it puts you in front of a lot of weights, it moves you like a carousel from ecstasy to agony and back again. There are times when a minute feels like a day and a day feels like a minute. Now it knocks you down being sure that you have reached the limit of your resources so that you immediately feel fresher than before the start. To be able to see through such a challenge it is important to be self-aware, to learn your reactions and know how to manage them so that you keep thoughts of quitting at bay.

Right now I’m in such a situation. 

Every step tells me to give up, that the pain is too much, that it’s not worth the risk, that time is flying and I’m moving slower than a snail and more than likely I won’t make it and in the best case I’ll finish after the cut-off and risk my health to boot.

To succeed in such a situation it is essential to understand that it is the mind that limits us. In the spirit of self-preservation, it is the one that creates all the scenarios in our heads to make us give up. But for every situation, ultra teaches you that there are solutions. 

To quiet the mind you have to prove it wrong, so I focus on everything that’s going right and debunk each counter-argument in turn : nutrition is excellence, I’ve never felt better than I do now. Even if my leg hurts I move forward and have found solutions to menage it as much as possible. Even though there are about 40 kilometres to go, only about 15 are downhill. Well, haven’t I done 15 kilometres of rough riding? Of course I have! Anyway the main goal from the beginning was to finish the race, so it’s ok even if the time one drops.

 Then I promised the kids we’d cross the finish line by hand and I’m going to keep my word.

Finish – Valentin Balanescu – UTMB

So they go mile after mile, hour after hour.

 I leave Trient and Les Tseppes behind and approach Valorcine. (Kilometre 156) Here, on the interminable descent, which seems like an eternity, it seems to me that time flies by too fast and I don’t move forward at all. It’s that feeling where it seems like an hour passes in a minute standing still. It’s the most difficult moment of the race because the idea that I’m not going to make it is creeping in deeper and deeper. I only have one more climb of almost 1000m and one more descent of that much in almost 20 kilometres and it’s already almost 09.00 in the morning, which means I have another 7 and a half hours. It seems like a lot for less than a half marathon but at the speed I’m moving on the descent it seems like a second.

The phone rings. 

It’s Ramona and she tells me she’s waiting for me and Marius in the CP. My first thought is that they are waiting for me in Chamonix and I tell them not to wait for me as I will be late. She tells me that she sees me on the app and I have to be in CP in 3 minutes and that they are in Valorcine. I can feel my spirits rising and the feeling is that I’m picking up the pace although I think it’s just a feeling, more than likely. After a few minutes I reach the CP and I hear Marius from a distance squeezing enough to wake up the last sleepy person in all of Valorcine : Valiiiiii, Come on Vaallliiiiiii! Until the capaaaat!

In the CP Mariu brings me a coffee (the only one I drank in the whole contest) and Ramo takes care of the leg which is the size of my boot. It even seems to be out of place from how it’s inflated. The cold spray plus the anti-inflammatories seem over about 10 minutes to take effect. 

Their encouragement has lifted my spirits and I’m determined to see it through. After Valorcine there are about 2-3 miles of flat false going well and it seems the leg is better, the pain is subsiding. The road curves away from the path along the asphalt and ahead I see Marius and Ramo waiting for me again. They accompany me about 500 metres to where the Col de Montets is. The 5 minutes with them have lifted my spirits even more so I tackle the climb full of enthusiasm. Even though my watch is dead, I climb pretty well even though the sun is already up and halfway melting. 

No matter, spirits are high and much easier than I imagined a few hours before I reach the top. Up there the sun is beating down, but the path is full of cheering tourists and even if the pains seem to be coming back slowly I reach Tete aux Vents. It’s 12:15 and here I’m sure I’ll make it to the finish: I still have 4 hours and a quarter for 10 kilometres.

By the end I’m definitely going to be the one with all the time in the world to finish. Luckily it takes me less than two hours, although a bunch of runners pass by me cheering me on and congratulating me for not giving up. Halfway down the road I pass the tables of La Floria terrace where I get a round of applause from people relaxing over a beer and among the cheers I hear a “Hai Romania! 

From here the line of spectators starts again, in groups of 50 metres at a time, cheering us on and congratulating us on our performance: Courage! Come on! Come on! Four kilometres!

When I get into town, I call Ramo and tell her that we have entered Chamonix. She tells me she’s waiting for me at Ultra Village, and the kids are waiting for me near the end so we can cross the finish line together. 

The last kilometre I probably won’t soon forget. It’s the essence of this race I’ve dreamed of for 5 years: on the one hand the pain I felt with every step, on the other the cheers of hundreds of people cheering me on from the sidelines, the joy of seeing the children again who jumped into my arms about 100 metres before the finish and with whom I crossed the finish line by hand, and the feeling of finishing the dream I started 44 hours and 16 minutes ago.

The turtle race has ended! Until the next one.

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The emotions and experience of TrailRunning Academy athlete Valentin Bălănescu during the 170 km of the UTMB.