Sunday, July 12, 2015

Mont Blanc 80k - the highest of highs and lowest of lows

Mont Blanc glowed dimly across the Chamonix valley in the pre-dawn light. A thousand specks of light threaded the trail, back and forth, up the goat like switchbacks to Mt. Brevent. In the lead group of 10-15 we climbed at a tempered pace thinking about the 20,000+ft of vertical climbing ahead. Occasional runners jockeyed for position, but otherwise we maintained a near pedestrian pace. The day looked promising as Alex Nichols (INOV8) and I chatted here and there. We even spotted an Ibex silhouetted against the twilight sky. I surprisingly felt relaxed climbing unaware of how hard it would become to just finish the race.
Chamonix, France. Mont Blanc (upper left) mixed in with some passing clouds.

The opportunity to compete in not just one but two international races this year was a lifelong dream come true. And with that dream came hopes and ambitions that led me to start preparing in January.
I write to help me digest and overcome post-race feelings of failure from the 2nd of my international exploits as part of the World Skyrunning Series, Mont Blanc 80k held in the magnificent Alps and starting and ending in the touristy mountain town of Chamonix, France.

I had two very different races within the one race. My first race was one of wonder, excitement, intense climbing challenges, joy in overcoming prior injuries in time to race, technical descents, and pure mountain amazement. My second race was filled with despair, self-pity, a loss of all motivation, and sense of failure.

My biggest challenge that day was not the terrain, the miles, the intense running. It was myself. Falling out of the top 10, one of my primary goals, I lost motivation to simply run. And that made for one of my toughest and most enduring runs to date.
Exploring the Aiguille du Midi at 12000+ft. Past the stairs is a view up the Chamonix valley.
My wife, Lisa, and I arrived in Chamonix, nestled into the Alps, a week prior to race day. Chamonix is home to about every mountain sport thought possible. Alpinists head out for epic ascents. Paragliders drift down from the tram tops. Glaciologists track glacier movements. Tourists in shorts and puffys take speedy trams up to the top to peer over glacier white valleys watching alpinists like ants march across the snow covered slopes. Rock climbers make sport of the many cliffs that comprise the steep canyon walls carved by glaciers not too long ago. Mountain bikers clad in protective gear scream down trails and then lounge on chair lifts back to the top.
Tourists in puffys.
My first exploratory run upon arriving took me near the top of the Mont Blanc 80k’s first 2000+ft climb. There I glimpsed Mont Blanc peak through the clouds that day across the valley. A chamoix (small deer like animal) gracefully played on the steep slopes. My sense of amazement and anticipation of the race climbed high. The next day it climbed even higher as we trammed it up to the Aiguille du Midi at 12000+ ft. The views were breathtaking in the crisp, thin air.
My first run in Chamonix of course took me up to grand views and an amazing trail network.

A sample of some of the trails along the steep forested lower slopes.
Race morning started early - just before 4am we lined up in the town center. Up we climb. Before long (~3hrs) we are descending from the first big climb and traverse towards the 2nd aid station, in the town of Le Buet, where Lisa patiently waits in the early morning sunshine. Refueling and feeling smooth, I then start the 2nd and toughest climb of the day up to Col de la terrassee. My legs feel much better than at Transvulcania where I struggled with a pulled groin injury just prior to that race.
3:40am race morning with Hillary Allen and Alex Nichols.
Photo: Lisa Shipek
Past the aid station I find myself running with Seb Chaigneau (finished 10th overall), an older French veteran of this race. Shortly after the grade steepened to power hiking pace, Seb works his hiking poles and I quickly fall back. I am determined to remain relaxed up this climb but it continues getting steeper and I feel the burn in my calves. The final push is up a long section of bright snow carved steps and then a short section of a goat like scramble to the rim.

I made it! I sneak glances around before threading my way over the rocky back slope of the bowl starting the decent to the Emossen Dam, the 3rd aid station. I am running by myself and having fun. Slipping on a long snowy descent I realize it is much easier to slide down on my butt and give my legs a rest. I slide down several more slopes with my arms outstretched on either side to help steer. I am grateful my thin running shorts hold up to the icy slopes and I don’t end up bare cheeked.
I arrive miles later at the Emossen Dam aid station. Both water bottles were empty due in part to the slow going trail sections and the deceivingly intense alpine sun. This temporary dehydration may have been just the start to losing confidence and ultimately motivation.
A view near the top of Le Tour with Emossen Dam in the distant middle of the photo and Col de la terrassee just behind the left foreground.
The near vertical descent from the dam is the steepest and most goat like yet. A few cables and ropes are strategically placed for the less sure-footed. I silently pair up with another as we descend. We pop out onto a street of a small hillside village. He refills and splashes off in the streetside water fountain piping refreshingly cold water from snowmelt above. I follow suit and am thankful for his example.

Then before I know it we start the 3rd brutal climb up and over to the town of Le Tour. My legs are quickly becoming heavy but hanging in there. I slowly pass a pair of runners. Near the top I run out of water and realize the aid station is not for another few miles. A small stream slips down the trail and across. I contemplate the potential consequences of untreated water or dehydration. I screw off the cap and plunge my bottle in. The water is perfectly cold and refreshing with just a few grains of sediment captured.

The view from the 3rd climb is equally gratifying from the first two. Still feeling competitive I allow myself only a quick glance around before descending again. A short while later I am surprised to see two top world class runners among a group of spectators, Kilian Jornet and Emelie Forsberg, are out cheering us on. The descent to Le Tour aid station where I will see Lisa for the 2nd time is hot. I feel the sun beating down on me and despite the smoother trail my legs and feet are feeling battered by the steep, tough descents.

I come into the aid station feeling worn out but know the hardest parts are behind me. Lisa informs me that I am just barely in the top 10. I look forward to the next section before the final climb which on the maps and profile guide seem much easier. I grab two orange slices, refill my bottles, and scurry on with an extra boost of adrenaline. A half mile later the adrenaline of the aid station has worn off. Another runner comes past me. I realize I am out of the top 10. I slow to a sluggish jog even as I move downhill. My aching legs move to the front of my mind and drain the last of my motivation to keep racing. A couple more runners pass and completely annihilate any last drops of motivation remaining in me.

The trail mentally becomes full of obstacles. Each small climb is an effort. The sun burns. My feet hurt with every step. I whine quietly to myself wishing I had a grand excuse to just quit.

I don’t though.

I continue plodding on with just myself to commiserate in my misery. The grand scenery passes with barely a note. I arrive at the next aid station much later than anticipated. It is another mandatory gear control check station. I grouchily show the volunteer my pack containing a headlamp, rainjacket, water bottles, emergency blanket, phone, and a whistle. I contemplate quitting here but the sight of Lisa drives it from my thoughts. Instead I complain to her about my feet, refuse any change of socks or other items, and plod off.

Here, the climb up to Montenvers – the fourth and final major climb – starts. Thoughts of turning around and quitting enter faster and stronger into my thoughts. My watch states I am already near 50miles – the advertised race distance – I do not look forward to continuing much past as I realize I still have miles to go.
The stunning Montenvers Hut alongside the Mer de Glace glacier.
Each kilometer up climbs steeper. I stop and peer back down the switchbacks. I ask myself if it is shorter to turn around or to make it to the aid station to quit. Hikers coming down the trail state conflicting distances up to Montenvers which plays with my mood.

My feet plod on but my whining becomes louder in my head. If only I could push the mute button. Just days prior I was excitedly telling Lisa my desire to race epic 100 milers like Western States and Hardrock one day. Now I feel like retiring from ultrarunning.

With great effort I scramble up and around a few boulders following the trail. My mental anxiety comes to a head. I sit down on a boulder, lean over the side and hurl, and again, and again. The two oranges from hours before fly out nearly intact along with most of the liquid from that same time period. Tears leak out of the corner of my eyes caused by the gagging effort. I swish out my mouth with a bit of water and realize I am nearly out, again. Without motivation to continue racing, I don’t do what I know I should and try to get more calories back in me. Instead I let my whining continue and slowly take the next step up.

I finally reach Montenvers, where I had visited in awe of the glacier scenery and toured inside the glacier cave just days prior. Instead it is now the last place I want to be. I ask to sit down and try to get some liquid calories back in me. The aid volunteer urges me inside the hut to lay down.
I pull out my mandatory phone and text Lisa. “Just made it up to Montenvers. Had a really rough climb. Resting for a few before continuing.”
The Mer de Glace glacier.

Lisa exploring the ice caves in the Mer de Glace.
She responds “You go honey! Run like an antelope in control…run, run, run.”
Ignoring her initial encouragement I text back awhile later, “Ok, I laid down for a few minutes. Feeling a tad better now. Will start on my way but will be slow. I can text later so you have an idea of when I might show up.”
“Ok, enjoy the last leg!” she responds.
And a few minutes later, “I’m really torn about quitting. They say it’s 10k more. I am already at 49 miles. I feel like I should finish but…”
The phone immediately rings. Lisa asks “Can you walk?”
Me, “Yes.”
“Start walking and you will feel better soon”, she says.
“Ok.” I respond flatly.

Shit, she is not having it. Ok, I can at least finish this race I think to myself.

I get up, reassure the aid station volunteer, and miserly head up the trail. I have no idea where I am place-wise and don’t care anymore.

Not until I finally enter the town of Chamonix with less than a mile to go does my interest in running faster return. Spectators along the final mile cheering give me motivation to resume a faster pace. These spectators lining the road is what makes this race special. Surprisingly my legs feel good. Well, I think, I just took it easy for the last 20 miles why should they be tired.

I cross the finish line in relief. Relief simply to be done. I am ecstatic to find out U.S. runners Alex Nichols placed 1st and Hillary Allen placed 3rd woman. I was bummed to have missed Hillary passing me by without notice as I was laying at the hut in Montenvers.
Coming across the finish. Very happy to have made it!
Photo: Lisa Shipek
Americans Alex Nichols (1st overall) and Hillary Allen (3rd female) on stage accepting their cash prizes for the 80k race.
I am embarrassed with my own performance. I am embarrassed to have given up so easily. I was hoping to show how strong of a mountain ultrarunner I was at these two international races. Instead I struggled to finish each race. Feelings of doubt set in strong.

It is always good to look at the bigger picture. I did place 27th overall in 13hrs 26min out of 701 finishers over 56miles and 20,000+ft of vertical climbing. This year I have been a much stronger competitor at the U.S. races than I have ever been. I continue to learn and grow competing in increasingly more challenging races.

I have since been sidetracked by bike touring through a Tuscan heat wave, cooling off in Munich’s Englisher Gartens, and figuring out traveling logistics before starting to prepare myself for my next race (Audi Power of 4 in Aspen, CO) in a week. I struggle with how to overcome my disappointments, move on, and ensure I better prepare mentally to not let this happen again.

In hindsight I should have reworked my goals for Mont Blanc 80k based on having a reduced training intensity in the lead up to ensure I recovered from a pulled groin. In the future my first goal will clearly be to finish the race. Future goals will include process-based goals along with outcome based goals.

I am immensely grateful for the opportunity I received due to support from Run Steep Get High and U.S. Skyrunning to experience the international ultrarunning scene at Transvulcania and Mont Blanc. The lessons learned and strength gained from these races will allow me to push new boundaries at my upcoming U.S. races. Each race brings new friendships, insights, and lasting memories.
Extremely grateful for Lisa's love and support and ability to get me to the finish.

We had tremendous fun exploring the Chamonix valley and thankful to the
support from Skyrunning and my sponsors to get me there.
The final traverse from Montenevers before the final descent.
The view down valley and the point in the race where the final descent back to town started.

An alpine climber shadowed by Mont Blanc.

Touring the Tuscan hills with Lisa for a post-race recovery and much appreciated vacation.
Photo: Lisa Shipek

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