18 July 2015

Mont Blanc 80 km 2015 race report

It has gone three weeks since I ran Mont Blanc 80 km and it feels definitively too late for a race report. If it had been only about my experiences and learnings I would probably have skipped writing this altogether, I do not need to write this either to prove to others or myself what I achieved or give an account of what went right or wrong. However, I think the race itself was so great, with an absolutely superb course, that it deserves some pictures and words.

The race started at 4 am from central Chamonix and as my hotel literally was 50 yards from the starting line I had set the alarm for 3:15. As always before a morning race I woke up earlier, but still felt quite rested. This was my first “shorter” race in a while after Tor des Geants in 2013 and Petite Trotte a Leon in 2014 and mistake number 2 was probably that I really tried to stuff myself full with food and fluids before the race and ate as much as I could both before I went to bed and immediately when I woke up. What about mistake number 1? Well, I woke up with a slight headache and realized that my first mistake was that did not arrive in Chamonix until late afternoon the day before the race and therefore had no time to adjust better to the altitude and surroundings. Still it was great to be back in the Alps and listening to the same speaker voice as when starting PTL last fall.
Early morning start in Chamonix
Mistake number 3 was that I decided to wear a technical compression T-shirt from Compressport – certainly looked really cool, but as it turned out a risky, and probably not the best, choice as I paradoxically both got really hot in it and at the same time got really cold over my stomach due to the sweat.  Mistake number 4 was a real beginner mistake, a mistake mentioned as the first one in Joe Uhan’s excellent listing of “Six Things That Elite Ultrarunners Are Doing That You Are Not” – not running slow enough during the first ascent up to Brevent. It felt as I was hiking slowly, but as I climbed the 1426 meters up to Brevent at 2461 meters altitude in less than two hours and was among the first 200 runners out of 1000, when I normally starts much slower and is somewhere in the middle of the field, I am certain I started too aggressively. It felt great, however, and even more so during the first descent down to the first food control when watching to sun rise over the Mont Blanc massif.

Sunrise from Brevent over the Mont Blanc Massif on the other side of the valley
When stopping at the control to eat and drink something I realized suddenly that I was quite nauseous. I tried to eat some bread, only to almost get it up immediately, so the only thing I could tolerate was some coke and orange wedges. I was not too worried and decided to continue the descent to Flegere to see if I felt better at a lower altitude. I still tried to keep a good pace and was just thinking how fun and technical this path was when I fell headlong off the trail. Luckily, I fell on some stones and could arrest myself with my hands before falling down the slope into the forest below the trail. I got an adrenaline rush and was up and running in less than a second as I was not even passed by the runners just behind me and did not realize until some minutes later that I was bleeding quite profusely from my right hand and left knee. As I had full moments in both the hand and knee and it did not hurt too much I just continued running.

Descending worked fine all day, except when I fell
When the adrenaline left the body I felt very weak, however, and slowed down my pace when starting the small ascent to Tete Aux Vents. Here I also took one of the liquid Enervit gels I was carrying – I was happy to be able to tolerate those and should probably have carried more than 5, my planning had been to have one at each major climb, and mistake number 5 was too not have more of those with me. It was really frustrating to feel strong and lively in the legs and muscles, while at the same time very weak and nauseous and not able to go run as normal. I still hoped it would get better coming to the second major food control in Buet after 26 km, but during this time I was started to get passed by more and more runners and this is never good for the morale, in particular as I normally is almost never passed when ascending. Still, I was among the first 300 runners when reaching Buet after 4 hours and 37 minutes.
Heavy feet while ascending
Here I really became worried as I had to suppress vomiting as soon as I tried to eat anything. I looked for soup or broth, but they did not have any at this station and I had to resort to only Coke and some orange wedges again before setting of after a short stop. I noticed that it now had started to get really hot and I was happy that the ascent up to Col de la Terrasse through Loriaz started off in a quite dense forest in the shadows. Soon, however, we came to sunny meadows and clearings that started much earlier than the normal altitude for the tree lines of 2000 meters. There were plenty of small steams and I started to fill my head cap with water and wet my arms and legs each time I passed in order to cool down. I do not know if it was this that caused my ears to feel as they were filled with water, or if this ear clogging was caused by some infection or something else, but it did not help my nausea.  Mistake number 6 was clearly one of the major ones and that was to not train properly in heat before this race; it became incredibly hot during the day and I was not at all prepared for it. During this painfully slow ascent I also became increasingly irritated with my new running poles. Mistake number 7 was to bring new poles to the race – I had never really tested the Mountain King Carbon Trail Blaze Poles I had decided to run with, mostly due to their low weight while still being Carbon poles, and they were clearly not up to the job in the Alps. I guess they might be really good on the British fells, but in the more stony and technical terrain around Chamonix they were too weak and not absorbing the shocks when climbing. I also quickly developed blisters in my hands – something I have never experienced with my regular Black Diamond Ultradistance Poles. I will post a more comprehensive comparison here soon.

Rather quickly during the ascent up to Col de la Terrasse I definitely realized that I would not meet my target time and that this would be a very long day even though I still I hoped to be able to arrive in Chamonix in time for a late dinner. I was now so weak that I had to stop frequently to rest, something not entirely bad as I then could enjoy the view more and the passage up to the Col at the highest point of the race at 2645 meters through the glacier was really spectacular. If it would have been a cold day it would have been impossible without crampons, but now the snow was almost too soft even for holding the steps that had been formed.

Ascent through the glacier up to Col de la Terrasse.
Felt almost like being in a lemmel migration with all runners sometimes
The last few meters up to the Col involved some light scrambling and it was almost ridiculous how many guides that were waiting for us runners and the top and literally directed each step we took. A nice gesture, but I think the following descent through some lingering snow fields were actually more dangerous.

Mountain guides babysitting runners at Col de la Terrasse
The descent was really fun, however, as some of the snow fields were so steep and the snow so soft that running or walking down was really difficult, in particular with poles without any basket at all. So, the only option was really to just sit down and glissade down. It was really cold for the buttocks, and I was not particularly fast as I clearly had not practiced this as some French runners who swiftly passed me, but it was fun.

The descent through snow fields requiring glissading skills
That it was not without risk was however evident when I just after the last snow field was stopped as a rescue helicopter was picking up a runner with a broken or twisted ankle.

Rescue helicopter picking up an unfortunate runner
The last distance into Emosson, the next “ravito complet” after 39 kilometers was clearly runnable, but it felt like I was more stumbling than even walking. At Emosson I finally vomited after eating some bread and after that I felt better and could have some soup in addition to the Coke and oranges I now was quite tired off (I have not had Coke now for three weeks since the race – probably a personal record for me). I also finally changed the hot dark black compression T-shirt for my favorite white Better Than Naked T-shirt from North Face – and as soon as I had done that I realized that mistake number 8 clearly was that I had not stopped for 2 minutes before and done it earlier. I also made mistake number 9 and stayed way too long at Emosson, but it felt like it did not matter any longer. Just exiting the station a photographer took some of the mandatory race pictures and I look surprisingly strong considering how I really felt.
Looking surprisingly strong - finally with a new T-shirt and finally having been able to tolerate some soup.

The descent from Emosson down to Chatelard was really fun and not too slow, it was a quite technical descent through the forest with several sections with chains as aids for the steepest parts and I could easily just keep my place in the single-track line that had formed of runners waiting for those in front of them. Too always have other runners around me was a new experience for me after TDG and PTL and quite frustrating sometimes, in particular as I throughout the day only was passed by others and almost never passed another runner. In Chatelard village, at the lowest altitude during the race so far of 1155 meters, there was a check of the mandatory equipment – a good thing I have not experienced in other races before.

It was now mid-afternoon and over 30°C (high 80s in Fahrenheit) in the shadow, but as the descent to Chatelard and the first part of the ascent up to Les Jeurs went through quite dense forest it was not too bad. However, as soon as the meadows started during the ascent it became incredibly hot. The water in my ear had also returned and I had now in addition to feeling quite dizzy also got quite bad tinnitus and when I was greeted by another runner at the next food station I could barely hear that he was speaking Danish (which is similar to Swedish and thus at least partly understood by Swedes) and complaining of the heat. He must also have been suffering horrendously this day as I passed him in the climb up to Catogne and Tête de l'Arolette and then did not see him further despite my crawling pace. At Les Jeurs I again had some broth soup, Coke and oranges – trying to eat some more just made me sick again and I left in the heat without any new energy. The few afternoon hours I spent in going up the relatively gentle slopes to Tête de l'Arolette at the, for the Alps at least, moderate altitude of 2322 meters, were some of the longest in my life. I was completely exhausted and had to focus in order to take each and every step in order to not stumble of the trail. I also had to focus on my breathing as exhaling through partly closed lips was the only way I could somewhat quieten the storm in my ears. I have never experienced anything similar and when searching for similar experiences in the literature or the net I do not find much.

It was somewhere during this climb that I finally made my decision to not finish the race. It was not an easy decision as it would be my first DNF in an ultramarathon and I have previously written a blog post about the negative things of a DNF. One contributing factor to the DNF was that I had to leave Chamonix already 6 am the next morning for a job conference in Salzburg, and I realized that I with the current pace would finish sometime during the early morning hours – more than 6 hours slower than my target finishing time. This was clearly mistake number 10 - I will never again compete in a longer mountain ultramarathon trail race without having proper recovery time after a race and having to think about finishing before the cut-off time just too be able to recover sufficiently. Nevertheless, this was not what made me decide to quit the race at the next aid station. I think it was a combination of realizing: 1) that the experiences I would miss by not running the last 25 kilometers of the trail during the evening and night were not worth the suffering I felt due to the weakness, nausea and tinnitus; 2) that I already had missed my target finishing time and that for this shorter race a good finishing time was actually more important from a personal competitive standpoint than just finishing – I had nothing to prove to myself just by finishing the race and I did not need any UTMB points or anything else by just finishing; 3) that my medical condition was actually quite bad and that I should have been taken off the course if there only had been a medical check-up during the race; and 4) that I would not risk a scary descent in a dark forest down to Chamonix during the night similar to the experience I and Otto had during PTL last year. So, immediately when I made the decision just before reaching Tête de l'Arolette I knew it was the right one and it still feels so three weeks after the race.

Everything felt much easier as well after making the decision to DNF, like a heavy burden had left my shoulders, and I could actually enjoy the stunning passage on the ridge over to Tete de Balme and the passage of Col des Posettes up to Ardoisieres with beautiful views over the Chamonix valley in the afternoon sun.

The ridge between Tête de l'Arolette  and Tete de Balme  
I took good time to descend, but now the field of runners was finally more spread out and I could run long parts alone down to Le Tour. When I stopped I had completed 4713 D+ meters out of a total 6077 and it was only one major climb left so it still had been a fairly long day.

When I said I would stop at Le Tour I thought that there would be some kind of transport to the finish line, or at least some medical check-up, but I soon realized I was in France and unless you are dying you will not receive any attention. I was told that there was a public bus stop 500 meters away  where there might be buses going down to Chamonix and that I could go for free if I just showed my race bib. I had to wait 30 minutes for the bus and then that took another 30 minutes down to Chamonix center. During the waiting time and the bus ride I had felt quite fine, but as soon as I stepped out of the bus it was like my body finally erupted. I barely had time to reach a waste basket in a park before I started to vomit and found myself standing there doing that for the next 20 minutes. Quite painful, as I already after 5 minutes had nothing else to empty, but it would not stop despite that and I could not leave. When the attacks started to thin out some I managed to walk to the hotel, only to continue vomiting and spending the night in a miserable state continuing to vomit all I tried to drink or eat. On the good side, I had no chaffing despite the heat and was very happy with the Salomon S-Lab Sense Shorts in that respect. I had neither any blisters or pain in my Achilles tendons or calves and extremely satisfied with running this race in Salomon S-Lab Sense 4 Ultra shoes and Dry Max Trail Socks.

Was it worth it? Yes, the time when I jogged from Tête de l'Arolette to Col des Posettes, when I knew I was going to finish there, was actually one of my best “running” (my speed was really too slow to be called running) experiences. I could not have sunk deeper than I did physically and mentally during the previous climb and that probably made the experience so much stronger.

This view made it worth it and why I would recommend this race
Could I have avoided the DNF and the disastrous outcome of this race? I do not know, but probably my biggest mistake, mistake number 11, was done already long before I was standing on the starting line in that I had not accumulated enough running miles during the spring. I was probably in my best ever shape for 10 km, I had in a training run the weekend before the race, after a large dinner with coffee and cognac, fairly easy run 10 km in low 38, but that was probably not worth much for a race like this. I should have spent more time logging miles and doing hill repeats as previous seasons I guess. The only thing I regret is that I in the aftermath of the race got a strange pain in the upper part of my right calf – it came five days after the race and lasted for almost two weeks and it is just the last week I have been able to start running again. This prevented me from starting in Ice Trail Tarentaise, the race I most had wanted to run this year. If I do not regret the DNF in Mont Blanc 80 km, I certainly regret the DNS in ITT and mistake number 12 was to not plan my race schedule for the year better. I will now have to think carefully about what races to run during the rest of the summer.