Posted in Blog.
Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc: My Head Got Me There!
When you invest 10 months of training for a race it’s only normal to hope that the race lives up to your expectations.
Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) is the mecca of ultra trail running – a 105-mile trail race that travels through France, Italy, and Switzerland, looping Month Blanc, the highest peak in the European Alps.
Nothing about it disappointed me. It was what I was hoping for and more; super beautiful, very challenging, lots of steep up-hills, even more, tricky downhills, plenty of technical stretches, green, snowy, rocky, muddy, hot, rainy, energetic, well organized, and rewarding.
Chamonix – the starting/finishing point of the UTMB event – is a breathtaking beautiful energetic little French town, with a great ‘outdoors’ atmosphere. By the time I lined at the famous starting line on the afternoon of August 30th I had already seen hundreds of other runners cross the finish line (several races of different distances with different starting points are held thru the week, all of them finishing at Chamonix), and each time I cheered somebody crossing that finish line it got me both more excited and equally jealous. They had made it!
As history has proven, the racecourse offers no guarantees of reaching the finish line at Chamonix and this year was not an exception: out of 2543 who lined up at the starting line, 987 did not make it to the finish line. I was aware of the chances of not making it and the possible disappointment after traveling to a different continent, spending all those hours in training, and all the emotional investment that took me to commit to the event. I really wanted to make it to the arch at Chamonix!
I showed up to Chamonix confident that I was physically ready to take on the challenge, confident that I would endure any ‘discomfort’ and ready to deal with whatever UTMB would throw at me.
I think that in my 42 years as a runner, very few times have I trained as hard and as ‘smart’ (keyword) as I did for this race. I had done my best to mimic possible race day situations during all my training.
I had incorporated some creative workouts knowing that the UTMB course was going to be different than anything else I had done before. I think I still have nightmares from my 8 hours overnight run/hike workout on the treadmill at incline 15, but I also know that days like that made me a 2019 UTMB Finisher.
I enjoy races a lot, but I truly love the training, the commitment, the planning, and experimenting that is required to accommodate training for a specific event.
My competitive days of trying to get to the finish line as fast as possible are over. The last 12 years or so my focus has been on the participation and completion of more ‘challenging events’ and therefore my training has been nothing more than the opportunity to put my body through as many ‘possible’ experiences that race day could throw at me as I can. I always find physical preparation to be the easy part.
To cross the finish line of such an epic event one must ‘want it’ and ‘want it’ for the right reasons, this finish line requires a bit extra of everything you got. I think it is realizing that a race like this one is not just about being physically ready, it takes more than strong muscles and strong heart.
I am sure many of the 900+ non-finishers were more physically ready and stronger that this 52 year old, I am also sure some of the differences between a handful of those 900+ non-finishers and yours truly included my experience, probably also my stubbornness, but especially the time I spent in my mental preparation.
So how did I train for this?
It is a given that my training included a lot of mileage (about 2800 miles in 10 months) that included long days, intense days, hilly days, technical days, hard days, easy days, slow days, a few fast days, gear testing days, nutrition focus days, hot days, cold days, altitude and everything in between, but what I know did the ‘trick’ to get me to the finish it was the mental preparation. Building that mental strength and confidence by convincing my little old brain that it would be able to deal with anything on race day.
Yes, if I have learned anything about myself in my 42 years as a runner/athlete it’s that my head is the one in control, yes my head, and as long as my head reminds my body that the finish line it’s the most important thing, my body will do anything and everything to get there.
How did I do that? Simple…doing things in training that my brain didn’t want to do, lots of ‘let’s call it: boring’ workouts, the kind which involves lots of mental complaining. I can give you some examples, in case you want to include some in your repertoire if you don’t do already do so:
- long “boring workouts”: 50 x 1-mile loops up and down a trail
- overnight runs on my own: several runs starting around midnight
- super “mind killing” hikes: 4-8 hrs on the treadmill at the max incline (FYI: I hate the treadmill!)
- long hikes on flats that tested my patience: during these my body wanted to run, but I forced it to walk, distance goes by so so slow.
I have replayed arriving at that iconic finish line in my head many times during my training,
but the real thing was so much better! And while I was confident and prepared, it wasn’t easy (not that I ever thought or would want it to be).
We all know that most of the time we can always expect a ‘surprise’ on race day, for me on this day it was the steepness of the downhills. I think like most, I may have studied and given too much thought to the up-hills but not enough to the downhills. Mental note for next time!
The ultra running community will tell you that you don’t become a true ultrarunner until you go through the usual stomach issues/ digesting discomfort during a race. In my 16 years as an ultrarunner I have had my share of those, and the 2019 UTMB increased the count by one.
What is it about race day that makes all the “guaranteed to work” nutrition plans give you the finger ‘NO, NOT today buddy!’
How my body made it to the finish line with only about 1100 calories during the 43 hrs it took me to complete this challenge still boggles me….or….maybe ….actually, maybe not! If I am honest with myself I know my head got it there!
All that mental training got me ready to deal with everything and anything! All my ‘mental training’ had built the confidence to not let discomfort, pain or discomfort stop me from arriving in Chamonix, the confidence to make it to the finish line was the only thing that mattered, made ‘an issue’ that started at mile 20 to be just one more thing to deal with.
Did I suffer you ask? No more or no less than anybody else out there. I chose to accept anything and everything and focus on enjoying every minute of it and smile as much as I could and I can honestly say there was no other place I wanted to be at that time, and at any given time during the race than dealing with that moment. I just needed to let my head lead me to that gorgeous finish line at Chamonix, after all, I did the training to do just do that!
The hard part now is accepting that it’s all just a memory!