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povestea UTMB-ului din 2021

The story of the UTMB 2021 race. How I chose not to quit even though I lost any chance of a podium finish.

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I’m in Bucharest. I’ve been sitting on the oversized wooden bench at the Steam coffe shop for an hour. I’ve had a filter and a medium with a shot. I’ve been sitting in the shade, but at 09:37 the sun comes out on Uruguay Street. I can feel it warming me through my thick jacket received as a gift from M.

Most people would just strip off and enjoy the morning chill. But for me the warmth relaxes me. I’m overcome by a state of bliss. It’s the opposite of the state I get during an ultramarathon. Or at least at the end of one. 

In the ultra, from one point on, you have every muscle tensed and it seems like every thought is against the desire to continue. Here, on the bench, I would sit for hours.

On August 27, another Friday, I was at the start of the UTMB with the sun warming me up. I got the state of bliss, and in not 20 hours I got the opposite of that, I think during an ultramarathon it is an absolutely natural state. 

Jordi, Xavier, me, Germain, Jim, Dmitry, Francois – front row. 

Behind us several hundred other runners. I feel we are no different from each other and our chances of finishing first are equal. 

Ahead of us we have 171 kilometres, over 10200 metres difference in level. We all set out to run or walk them. That “communicates” us. 

The start is on fast-forward, but from the first steps of the run I’m at the front with the leading pack. I have a thought of running ahead of everyone for a few metres, but I tell myself that this is something only an unconscious beginner would do. I refrain.

I get into the rhythm of the pack and enjoy running side by side with runners who have invested a lot in this race, at least as much as I have. 

I cover the first 8 kilometres to Les Houches in 33-35 minutes. They were almost flat kilometres and I have a smile on my face, a few people who recognise me are cheering me on by name. 

At the first CP I fill my 2 flasks with water, as planned, and am ready to run the first climb. I’m within a minute of the first 10-15 runners. The effort seems easy, and I’m right on schedule with my target times. 

UTMB - Saint Gervais
© Romain Bourven – UTMB 2021, Saint-Gervais

 

I reach Saint-Gervais, kilometre 21, in 1h55, taking care not to accelerate too much on the descent, then Les Contamines, kilometre 33, in 2h55. Exactly the times I set myself.

At the check-point Ergo was waiting for me, who was ½ of the support team completed by Maria. Ergo had just entered the check-point, and I, not two minutes later, and I’m off.

In Les Contamines (km 33) in the CP it is crowded and chaotic. If the support team isn’t on their toes, they can miss you. When I arrived, I didn’t see it and shouted loudly “Ergooo!”. Like a genie out of a lamp, he appeared in front of me and pulled me by the hand to the little piece of bench that had all the makings of an ad-hoc checkpoint.

I load up with food for the next 50 kilometres, while Ergo says “you’re 10 minutes early”. I look at my watch which shows 2h55. That’s exactly what I planned. I don’t understand what he means. 

I put on my headset and exit the checkpoint 83 seconds later. 

I don’t know what place I’m in, I don’t know who’s in front, but after I get out of CP I’m running side by side with other runners ahead of me.

By Les Contamines they were a few seconds ahead of me: Diego Pazos and a Compressport athlete with blond pigtails. Fuelled by Tuc biscuits, mint tea and Maria’s smile that I caught out of the corner of my eye for a few seconds, I run to the next CP.

After mile 33, on the flat, I run a little harder, even as I feel the weight of the bag full of goodies. Without much effort, I catch up with the runners behind. 

I catch up, say hello and cheer on Tom Owens. Within a kilometre, I catch Xavier. I pass him and see that he’s having trouble climbing, wobbling, looking dazed. 

Before this I was having an inner monologue and wondering how many years and how many times I have to go around Mont Blanc to run side by side with him? 

It took 4 entries and 7 laps of the loop. 

This was the year, but he had some health issues. I preferred it to be different. To be fully healthy and run with a smile on our faces, side by side. I preferred the duel to be fair. Now the “duel” seems unequal. 

I reach kilometre 50, Les Chapieux, in 5h 25, still fresh. 

Jordi a few seconds behind me. The miles went by so naturally, like pouring a beer in a glass. 

Here comes the first section where I like to speed up: Les Chapieux (km 50) – Col de la Seign (km 60). 

After Les Chapieux follows a one kilometre section of asphalt on a slight climb. Who can still run this section in the race, it’s still fresh. I run it and decide to catch Jordi behind, who has a two minute lead. I catch him and quickly gain the lead.

After another 3 kilometres, uphill, I get my first low and start looking back at the lights that are haunting me. 

I hear a voice that wasn’t just in my head and asks me in Romanian: “Can you still go?”. Even though I’m a little dazed and confused, I realize it’s Cristi Manole. 

I thought he was ahead of me, because I didn’t pass him in the race. It turns out that I’m ahead of him in the CP at Les Contamines (km 33). I reply “yeah, sure” and we continue a stretch together.

From the altitude, the exertion and the force feeding I feel like throwing up. Deaf vomiting. No spitting anything out of my mouth, just an abdominal tightness followed by a “bleaah” from all my guts. 

That’s a sign that I need to ease up on the food poking and get more into the running part. Cristi takes the lead. I put a shirt on and try to get closer to the front. 

I’m on the most technical portion of the race and for the first time regret starting with a pair of road trainers. I can feel the edge of the rocks I’m stepping on in my cleats and it makes my quads tighten more than they need to. 

I arrive at Lac Combal and find I’m in 9th place. Better than I expected, but worse than 2 years ago when I was in 3rd place.

© Romain Bourven – UTMB 2021, Lac Combal

 

The second stretch I like to speed up: Lac Combal (km 66) – Col Cheruit (km 75). I accelerate without looking back. It’s all over the climb, quite fast, even though I walked it.  

Only the descent remains towards kilometre 80.

I’m still fresh and no one is on my tail, but no one is in front of me either. It’s a feeling that makes me happy. 

It feels like I’m all alone in the forest and the whole globe is asleep. It feels like the end of the world has come and I have nothing better to do and choose to run. 

Do I run for pleasure or do I run to find a home with other human beings? I can’t tell if what I’m thinking about is fiction or reality, but after a few meandering runs, through dust and forest, I arrive in Courmayeur to “real people” and leave my fiction.

Coming a kilometre ahead of me on the trail, Maria and Paul wake me up to reality. They fill me in on where I am, what the runners in front of me look like, how long they’ve been in CP, and I tell them how I feel, what my problems are, “the gels don’t really fit anymore and I’m going for ‘natural, smoothies. I tell them half-heartedly. The other half I lost somewhere on the way down.

 The low voice tells me I’m more tired than I realise.

I arrive in Courmayeur (km 80) at 02:25. I’ve been running for more than 9 hours and everything feels natural. It feels like I haven’t put in much effort. I’m like at a race in Romania where I know I’m going to speed up. The second half is harder, but should be done in less than 12 hours. 

The first 80 kilometres went by easily and because I had planned every time, every gel. Now, in the 2nd half, I have left room for the unknown. Although I had all the food planned, I didn’t know exactly the times I needed to tick off to meet the goal at the next CPs. 

I pass the floodlit CP in the Courmayeur gym on the streets over which the night has poured. My thoughts are racing ahead. I’m on the next climb, close to Bertone. 

I’m in 8th place and ahead of me is Cristi Manole. Even though I’ve done 100% of the climb on foot, I reach Bertone at almost 4am. 

It’s the coldest point of the night and I feel it. I get to the CP and ask them for soup. I put TUC crackers over it, but it’s too hot to spoon down my throat. 

Soup too hot, outside too cold. 

I walk into a room and there I see Cristi cramping and wanting to give up. 

I’m disappointed, it seemed like we were fighting a common battle. 

Now it’s like I’m alone in the race. Cold, I put all the clothes in my rucksack on, grab some more soup and leave. I could use a hug from Maria as consolation for his abandonment. If I were a puppy, I’d have my tail between my legs, dreading being left alone.

Two minutes later, 3-4 runners come along and overtake me. Their metronomic pace seems powered by the stars of the night. They run so easily, if they were running on the beach, there would be no sole. 

After another 10 minutes of walk-run, I feel the urge to pull over and “take a picnic”. Jordi passes me and seems to speed up when he sees me. I stay sitting on my butt and try to get as much gel and Tuc bits into me as possible.

After a few minutes I resume the run, then I pace it because I’m sleepy and feeling the effort too hard. I am overtaken by 6-7 other runners as I try to survive. 

I’m at mile 60. 

Utmb 2021 - Courmayeur - Robert Hajnal
© Romain Bourven – UTMB 2021, Courmayeur

 

I rub the back of my neck with the palm of my hand, like a piece of Fontina cheese in a grater, and think about what to do. I tell myself that I have time to recover from the biggest low I’ve ever had in a competition and to overtake the others in a few hours. 

But I still feel like I’m barely moving. I do 10 kilometers in 2 hours. I’m thinking of stopping at Arnouvaz, kilometre 100, where Paul, Bucovina Ultra Rocks organiser and part of my crew, is waiting for me. The thought that in a few moments I can stay warm in the car is tempting.

At that moment, however, it’s as if someone cuts through the sky and it starts to brighten. Little by little, like when you wake up and pull back the curtain, and the room gradually-gradually-becomes light. Suddenly, I start running. 

I feel like I’m on a film set, like the director said “action” and that got me moving. I feel reborn. 

Ten minutes later my phone rings, it’s Paul. He asks what’s wrong with me and tells me he’ll pick me up if he has to. I tell him I don’t need it, “I was sick, but I’m back, see you in Arnouvaz”. 

After 20 minutes, I see Paul and Mateo, Paul child, their first words were encouraging: “Jim and Pablo Villa have retired”. 

I tell them I want soup at the next checkpoints and then I realize how good it is to have a man at each checkpoint, he can inform the support team to prepare me exactly what I need. 

I also have soup with TUC here and am grabbed by the 2nd girl, Mimi Kotka. I’m happy for her, but hurry out of the check-point. 

I fill up 2 flasks with water (although I was planning to have 3) and come out with fresh strength. 

I turn off the front. We are at mile 105 at 2200 meters altitude.

I see 4-5 runners who have passed me at night and who I am about to pass in the next kilometers. Next up is how many sections where I like to speed up?  

Gran Col Ferret – La Foly. 

I catch up with 4-5 runners who are suffering from the cold. I still have all my clothes on. And the hunter’s eye activated. I hydrate and fuel myself to the brim until I put in a gel that I throw up instantly. 

The moment you come to is magic. You feel like you’ve vanquished a creature that’s had a hold on you for hours. For these small victories it’s worth continuing, no matter how fierce the thought of quitting.

I start running and catch other runners behind. The wind picks up, a sign that we are nearing the top of the climb. Even though I’ve done over an hour on this climb, it felt like it went by very quickly. 

In total, I’ve done TMB 7 times, in competitions and training. This climb to Col Ferret about 10 times. 

This year my mind has shortened the distances. This year I felt how the miles seemed to shorten. The mind no longer makes an effort to encompass this distance entirely, instead it’s divided into segments. Some to be tackled faster, others slower. Some I run, others I hydrate or fuel. 

2-3 kilometres before La Fouly (kilometre 114), my race begins. 

I start to peel the layers of clothes off me. I enjoy the morning coolness. I stuff my hat, gloves, rain jacket, wind jacket into my trouser pockets. I make two gussets on my quads so that when I get to CP I just take off my pants and stuff that pair into my backpack, with the rest of my gear in my pockets. I’m excited about the idea.

Before the CP, Maria tells me that I’m 20 minutes faster than the app said, that I look better and run faster than the other runners in front of me, that I’m 12th overall and 11th male. 

I still had 55 kilometres to go. I was feeling so good that I thought I was going to run like this all the way to Chamonix. My mood is also fuelled by the fact that I had also caught Jordi behind. All the runners I passed were damaged, none of them responded to my pace and none of them kept up with me. 

I was running like I was at the start of a marathon, and not in the middle of an ultra. I’m euphoric! 

A few miles later, I stop to pee. I’m alarmed by the color of it, dark brown. Strange, because it was also cool and I think I had drunk enough water. 

I look back and don’t see any runners. 

I keep walking-running, but the euphoria wears off. It lasted me about 3 hours.

The climb to Champex-Lake comes and I start to feel my quads aching. I’ve been running for 14 hours. I haven’t run that long in over 12 months, it’s normal to feel tired. 

I arrive in the CP at Champex-Lac and not a minute later the runner I’m racing against for 10th place, a Korean, shows up. 

I eat well, change my shirt, let myself be encouraged by the support team and leave the CP after about 3 minutes. My quads are getting sore and I combine fast walking with running. At this stage of the race, even those fighting for a top 10 are pacing it out, even on the flat stretches. 

They also take 9th place from last. I pass him at a run. As soon as he sees me, he activates and starts running too. I let him go to the front and the Korean passes me. 

The climb that made me drop out twice in previous editions follows. I knew it would go by quickly if I hydrated and fueled up. I get near the top and see that the 2 athletes who had overtaken me have a maximum of 5 minutes ahead. It’s the “most dangerous” portion (close to 2000m) where I feel weak.

More than overtaking them, I want to reach the check-point and get obliterated by the team. By Trient I am overtaken by 2 other runners on the descent. I still miss a competition longer than 14 hours. 

In Trient (km 145), I am spoilt for choice. I change my running shoes, change my shirt again, eat and drink well. I am already 17 hours into the race. Six hours longer than my longest effort in 12 months. I’m already writing it down as a lesson for the next UTMB – “an 18-20 hour effort is required 12-14 weeks before the race”. 

It’s getting hotter and hotter, and I’m finding it harder and harder to sustain the effort. I’m in 15th place and the battle (this time with myself) is getting harder and harder. 

I’m thinking of finishing the race at the next point, in Vallorcine (kilometre 154). When you’re fighting for the top spot, when you’re constantly overtaking people, you have a few allies and hormones to keep you in the game. 

When those hormones leave you, you’re on your own, facing the demon inside you. 

I’m 25 kilometres before the finish, when the competitiveness leaves me. I feel disarmed, like a warrior without a sword. I can only keep my body moving by walking. Runners pass me on the run. I’m frustrated that I can’t do this. The descent is more painful than the ascent and more difficult than the last descent. 

The thought bubble of abandonment grows. I mentally project myself towards the next few miles. I have at least 6 hours to go until the finish. 6 hours of crawling.

I knew it would be hard, but I had no idea how hard. Between Vallorcine and the finish I felt like I was reaching my body’s limits. I’m moving as if in the Vallorcine CP I stuck my fingers in the socket and left them there. Every step is a step out of my comfort zone. My muscles ache, I’ve run out of energy in my body. 

The altitude of over 2000m at La Flegere makes my effort considerably harder. I did 3 kilometres in 80 minutes. In which I put all my clothes back on and tried to sleep for 5 minutes, curled up on a rock.

On the last descent I try to run in small steps, to overcome my pain. I had no idea walking could be so painful. 

I slowly peel off my raincoat and feel the coolness energise me. I change my walking stride to a running stride and head with the last of my strength to the finish.

Maria and Ergo come my way with 2 miles to go and we run together on the last descent. 

The only muscles that don’t hurt are my facial muscles. 

I can smile without pain. Even though the sun is hidden somewhere in the mountains I’ve been running through, I get a warm feeling. 

It seems that at the other end of suffering is the feeling of bliss

 

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