THE FOLLOWING POST IS STRAIGHT FROM THE MIND OF PAUL HOOGE, WHO NOT ONLY COMPLETED THE TOUR DU MONT BLANC (UTMB), BUT CRUSHED IT. HIS ORIGINAL POST CAN BE FOUND HERE:FOR THE SLACKERS TOO LAZY TO CLICK ON THE LINK ABOVE, READ ON.Paul HoogeUltra Tour Du Mont Blanc 2014
PrefaceI hate race reports, especially my own. An ultrarunning race report is often ultralong and ultraboring. This one is no different. If you are like me or a veteran ultrarunner here is the Cliff Note, “I started and finished UTMB. For me, it was hard.”If you insist on continuing, here is my report complete with the requisite elements and hyperbole. The common elements of a race report are cited in parenthesis.
Background: (So tough you will never “get it” element of story.)The Ultra Tour Du Mont Blanc (UTMB), is a single stage 105 mile, (by my Garmin 109 mile) foot race starting in Chamonix, France and circumnavigating Mont Blanc through 3 countries, France, Italy, and Switzerland. There is 31,500 feet of climbing and equivalent descent. It is widely recognized as one of the most difficult and competitive races of it’s distance in the world. If there is a single race that represents a World Championship of Ultrarunning most would agree UTMB is it. UTMB has minimum qualifications with a point system based on certain races completed over the last two years then a lottery. This helps assure a qualified field and some of the better Ultrarunners from 77 countries. If you are one of the “lucky” ones you will finish within the 46 hour limit.
Trail Runner Magazine summarizes the 2014 race: “This race started in a downpour that soaked runners and spectators alike to the bone and made a challenging course even tougher. The point is that UTMB is no ordinary 100-miler. It’s not even an ordinary extremely challenging 100-miler. Take one of the toughest courses in the world, with one of the most talented fields in ultrarunning, and add adverse weather and a start time that guarantees you’ll run through the night, and it starts to make sense that seemingly anything can happen at this race – just ask the American men.” (Half of the top US runners dropped).My UTMB.
It would be easier for you to run it yourself than have me painfully describe each mile, consequently, I’ve focused on some key points allowing you to fill in the blanks.After qualifying for two years and being turned down, I wired one million dollars to an unknown Swiss Bank account and I was in. I ran a lot over the preceding year to train for it. Enough to take me to the moon and back something like 12 times, but not really. I gathered all the required gear excruciatingly measuring every ounce and mortgaged the house to buy gear that saved a few grams. I then boarded a plane for Chamonix, France.
(Runner faces big adversity element of story.)In the month leading up to the race signs of overtraining were taking their toll. I was tired. I started having physical problems such as some serious back pain with radiating numbness and weakness in my legs – not a good sign. The radiation resolved, but the back pain persisted and got worse a week before the race. Also, I was having acute right knee pain that left me hobbling on occasion. Lastly, I got a cold with a sore throat and cough the day before the race. Normally, I find the best strategy is to ignore pain and just move on, but the importance of firing on all cylinders was essential here. It seemed cheesy and hedging to mention it to anyone. The bottom line is that in a race like this no one cares about your problems, not the mountain, organizers, or racers. They have thier own and those are many. Worse yet, my bride, Robin, who is my secret weapon for finishing any race was unable to join me. After spending all this effort, time, money and announcing to everyone this perceived superhuman thing I was about to do, you can’t avoid varying degrees of trepidation about what the hell you got yourself in to. Robin calmed me down and convinced me to forget about all that and focus on the task at hand.
(My race was harder than your race element of story.)On August 29th, at 5:30pm, I found myself in Chamonix, France, at the start line with roughly 2434 runners and exactly one billion spectators proudly wearing my Team Alchemist kit. There is a lot of hype, music, cheering. After being dry for the few days preceding the race, like clockwork, 10 minutes before the race start and as if it were giving us the finger, Mont Blanc bent over and unleashed a huge black cloud upon us and a downpour ensued. Thankfully I had carefully selected my gear to keep me warm and dry in the planet’s harshest conditions. So much so that in an hour I found everything to be completely soaked and twice as heavy. My new race rain strategy now is to dunk all my gear in a bucket of water before the race so I can quickly focus my attention on what I can actually control.As we ran the flat trail out of Chamonix I got my first taste of a primary theme for the the next two days. Forget that you are in one of the unimaginably scenic places on the planet, your view will be confined to the runners muddy SHOES in front of you. The reports from the elite runners always sound so dreamy: “As I was running down the beautiful valley inspired by the spectacular views I spotted Joe ahead…” For the rest of us it was almost always a conga line of runners. If you fell down you were sure to have many Hoka or Soloman (all anyone wore) shoe prints on your back.As we approached the first climb I cowered as suddenly all around me runners brandished their running poles. It looked like the French Revolutionary war. I was on the battlefield, defenseless with swords flying in every direction. Hence the second theme of the race, POLES. I never knew that the skinny appendages sprouting from my torso that had become evolutionarily less functional since my legs doubled in size from ultrarunning could be used for much more than squirting a GU into my mouth. The poles foreshadowed what was to become two days of dozens of near misses and several hits along with the constant intimidating clacking of these weapons around you.As we began to descend the first climb it was a mud wrestling match of epic proportions. By the bottom there was carnage of mud covered runners everywhere. Having no poles I saw my opportunity to pass in the form of some thick green grass just off the mud chute trail. Smirking at the other tools, alone, I sprung into action and planted my size 14 ski shoes onto the steep grade at full speed. I quickly discovered this might as well been green ice. What happened next is hard to imagine and harder to admit. I went down so forcefully on my ass that I completely popped back up into a midair running position, legs flailing, searching for solid ground and my backside hurting worse than I can remember since the paddling from my third grade teacher, Mrs. Vogt, that left me standing for a couple days. I worried that I had just injured myself out of the race in the first 10 miles. Bruised and deflated I returned to my position in the mud with the others.
And so goes the third primary theme for the race, MUD, frequent, slippery, sticky, mud. You would try to step around it, but inevitably, like running barefoot in a dog park, you where going to end up ankle deep in it. For two nights and days I ran in wet socks bathed in mud. I imagined myself getting trench-foot and at the final aid station undergoing amputation WW1 style.
Fantastic start Paul! After completing the first 10 miles and the easiest climb of the day, I was wrecked. For the next 35 hours it was to be, shoes, mud, poles, pain, shoes, mud, poles, pain…The climbs were straight up and endless. You looked up, fooled by a mirage of stars, only to realize it was runners headlamps. I was not used to how serious the Europeans were with ultrarunning. No talking, even with each other. I would try some small talk and get a blank stare and it wasn’t the language barrier. At the finish this was quite different as cheerful finishers patted me on the back and engaged me in conversation.
The last climb was a 3000 foot very cruel joke up a cliff. It was foggy and dark, but two clues gave it away, one was that I was having to use my hands frequently and the other being you could see the faint street lights directly below you.
There were a couple of brief exciting moments worth mentioning such as being slapped on the butt by cute French girls on two occasions after scanning my number at a checkpoint. The crowds in the towns were amazing and really lifted your spirits. The race aid stations, organization and support was unprecedented in any other ultrarunning race I have seen. Oh, and the best part, the last 10 miles…(Runner overcomes adversity element of story.)Normally a fast descender, I had spent the last 35 hours stepping aside every few minutes on the downhill while many others descended obscenely fast (for this race distance). It was that or risk getting pushed aside or impaled with a pole, both of which happened. I would pass many of them on the uphill only to be passed again. A fire had been building up in me for two days until suddenly I could not stop my legs from taking off and leaving my brain behind. Subconsciously, I guess I wanted to send a message to the other racers, and as childish as it was, it felt so good. I started blasting through groups of runners that had tormented me for two days. No solid contact, but they felt the brush of my clothing or the wind. Some yelled out as I flew by them, cheers or cursing, probably both, I couldn’t tell. Some tried to chase me, but I was feeling so energized that anyone that could catch me had long finished. I had started around 800th place and had slowly moved up the field but remained in the same relative position, around 500, for the second day. In the last 10 miles I ran faster than 98% of the starters and passed over 100 in the process. In retrospect I’m lucky I did not injury myself and blow my finish, but I really quit caring about my body after the first day.(False modesty element of story.)
In a a race of 2434 of some of the toughest experienced ultrarunners alive, this nothing special poleless old man with an aching back, hobbled knee, sore throat and cough, somehow shows up at the finish line in the top 15% of starters with a time of 36 hours 55 minutes, over 9 hours ahead of the cutoff and a grin bigger than Mont Blanc.
An ultrathanks to my Wife for being the one that really made this dream a reality. She reposted my status on line and support me from home the entire distance. Also, thanks to friends and family that really went out of their way to show support and if for nothing more than my personal embarrassment added an element of motivation that I essentially needed to finish.
(In all seriousness.)
I can’t hide the pride that I finished this, but really, I know I’m no superman and this is just a race. Success has no universal standard. It is different and relative for us all and we decide what that is. Thanks for reading about my success and congratulations on your successes this year as well!
Paul’s Most Awesomest Tour du Mont Blanc18 09 2014