ULTRA-TRAIL DU MONT BLANC 2018
After 35:15:33 hours and 136.6 kilometres I had to call it day, dropping out of the Ultra-Trail Du Mont Blanc (“UTMB”), swallow my pride and DNF (“Did Not Finish”) for the first time. I had never experienced this amount of highs and lows in one race, which ended in pretty heavy hallucinations and a sprained tibia forcing me to end my journey at La Giète aid station.
Several hours before on Friday, 31st August, side-by-side with family and friends, I made my way to the starting line in Chamonix. It was pouring down rain, yet the streets were filled with thousands of people. At 18:00 sharp, more than 2500 runners, including myself, started to move their UTMB journey.
It was an electric atmosphere. Despite the rain, thousands of spectators were cheering from the sidelines and along the trails. One of which had been Martin Nytra, a Czech ultra-running star, who I had met in Cappadocia in 2016 alongside Florian Felch. Though, we had not seen each other since, we kept in touch and kept following each other’s running endeavours through social media. It was a surprising and short encounter, but gave me a boost of energy. Similar to Martin, Flo has been truly rocking the Ultra-Trail scene winning a number of races and placing the Top 100 in Chamonix.
I put the first part of the race behind me and arrived in Les Contamines Mont Joie just before 23:00. I was soaking wet and changed into a set of warmer clothes for the night. While all felt good at the start, things changed during the first night, when temperatures dropped to -10 degrees accompanied by strong winds. Never mind the weather conditions and general tiredness caused by a sleepless night, between kilometer 40 and 60, I had to deal with strong stomach cramps, which forced me to slow down.
However, the sun always rises, and with new day brought some comfort to what was an extremely uncomfortable night. Feeling slightly better, I somehow found the energy to increase my pace on the ascend to Col de la Seigne and take over a number of people. I continued striding to Lac Combal, where my coach and my dad came to greet me. For some reason, I had forgotten about the climb to Mont Favre, I was surprised when I found myself hiking and running uphill, which was unforeseen, before descending to the half-way point in Courmayeur. I changed into lighter clothes and refueld my body, before taking on the second half of the race. Upon exit of the aid station, I saw my sister, girlfriend and parents giving me additional energy before climbing up to Refuge Bertone.
It was a long and steep incline to Bertone before the trail became flatter and flowier for the next 12 kilometres. The trail was leading past aid station Refuge Bonatti and down to Arnouvaz, where I was welcomed by three mad chanting friends, Simon, Angus and Biagi, whose chants I had been hearing from afar. Upon leaving the aid station, every runner was requested to put on rain trousers due to yet another bad weather front.
Grand Col Ferret was the final peak with more than 2000 meters of altitude. My legs felt extremely weak and sore on the incline. I was slowing down in speed and a number of runners were passing by. Eventually, I was able to follow on with another runner, which I perceived to be my friend Joe. It was in that moment, when my first signs of hallucination were noted. Two hours after departing Arnouvaz, I reached the summit of Grand Col Ferret being greeted by cold and icy winds.
The downhill from Grand Col Ferret via La Peule towards La Fouly felt good and I was hoping to recharge my batteries before heading towards the final three peaks of the race. At the aid station in La Fouly the other half of the Fettes boys, Jack, Joe and Doug, as well as my sister and girlfriend were awaiting me. By the time I had eaten some food and left the station it was dark and I was entering the second night. When I was planning UTMB, I decided not to sleep during the entire course and finish it in one go. However, as I had lost quite some time during the first night, by the time I reached La Fouly, I was lagging behind my initial race plan.
While the course continued downhill, the lack of sleep started to catch up on me. At this point of the race, it starts to get a little bit hazy for me and I cannot recall all the details of this section. On my way to Champex, I was leading a group of runners through the woods, when I was turning around for the first time with no clue neither where I was nor what I was doing. I remember looking into the far distance, seeing some lights and mistakenly thinking that was Champex. At the same time, I was staring at trees, which transformed into faces and human beings. I was hallucinating. I was switching in and out of reality, while continuing to hike uphill. It was scary, as I genuinely felt lost, questioning myself whether this was actually UTMB, or just a dream/ nightmare. Every now and then I had to step aside, to take a breather and trying to collect my thoughts.
I asked the closest runner behind me about what was going on, but he simply questioned me, wondering when I had slept for the last time and advised me to get half an hour of rest. Well, given the fact that I had woken up at 8:00 am on Friday, did not sleep the entire Saturday, I was actually awake for around 40 hours at this point. I kept going, but it did not get any better. I asked a second runner, who seemed even more irritated by my query and told me straight away to sleep. I must have covered a few more kilometres of mindless running and hiking – which I do not remember – until I spoke to a friendly Spaniard, who understood my issue and kindly listened to my words. Luckily at this point, we were only a few hundred meters away from the aid station in Champex.
Upon arrival I immediately saw the faces of the boys, my dad and coach. It felt like a switch was turned and I knew that I am at UTMB. I immediately told my dad what has happened and that I do not know how I had gotten to this point. Coach and I went into the aid station. I was not ready to give up and felt determined to continue this adventure. I shared my experiences with coach and rested for a few minutes. Given the circumstances, my dad and coach suggested to join me on the upcoming section to La Giète.
The initial part was flat and the three of us were jogging for most of the time. However, when we reached the beginning of the incline towards La Giète things really started to fall apart. I was barely able to walk, let alone keep my eyes open. At one stage, while my dad and coach were walking in front of me, I fell asleep standing. We were right in the middle of the two aid stations with nothing around us, so we had no option but to continue hiking up. At times, the two were literally pushing me up the mountain in turns. Of course, we knew that support to this extent is not permitted, but it was the only way for me to reach the next La Giète. Owing to my tiredness and exhaustion, as well as on-going hallucinations, I pointed out multiple “hotels” and “accommodations” along the way. Furthermore, I saw “streets” and “parking lots” from where we could have been picked up. Obviously nothing of those actually existed in reality. Furthermore, I was pointing out that after I had completed “this race” that I would finally qualify for UTMB, as well as I made a few reference to my job and the projects that I am working on. I am not sure what my dad and coach were thinking, but my two fellow supporters said that they certainly felt rather irritated to hear those words coming from me and their only goal was to get me to the check point.
Thinking back to this moment, it was a very special experience that I have not only shared with my coach, but especially with my dad. I guess it was one of those father-and-son moments, when you bond and push through something together, something that is greater than you as an individual, but something that you overcome as one unit. Obviously, I would have preferred not to have made such an experience, but looking back at it, this was an unique moment for the two of us.
After a few hours of struggle and desperation, the sun started to rise and we reached the long-awaited aid station. We entered into the little wooden hut. They scanned my bib and semi-conscious I told them that I would drop out. Then, I sat down on a bench and fell asleep. I have no idea for how long, but it certainly felt good to close my eyes for a little bit.
Eventually our friend and mountaineering guide Adi arrived at the hut to pick us up. The hut was unable to be reached by car, so we had to walk downhill for another hour, until we made it. I was too exhausted to really grasp what had just happened and that I had DNF UTMB. We drove off, past countless UTMB banners and posters. Barely anyone said a word. Each one of was completely exhausted and overwhelmed by what had just happened. 45 minutes later we arrived back at the hotel, the place where it had all begun a few hours before.
When I reflect upon my decision today, of course I ask myself whether I could and should have continued, but speaking to those that saw me and the condition that I was in, I am confident that I have made the right decision. Regardless of the fact it could not have gone any other way I can proudly said that I have pushed myself beyond my limit.
I am still wrapping my head around the events of that weekend, as I am still not 100% sure what had led to the hallucinations. Overriding it all was my sheer lack of sleep, to not go for almost two days without rest is tough, but when you combine that with the elements, many kilometres, little food, and a body that has been on antibiotics one week prior, it probably makes sense. With that being said, I could have decided to rest during the course, but having been focussed on the time, I did not come to my mind at any point. Thus, one can also say that there is difference in mindset between wanting to achieve a particular time/ position versus “just” finishing the race.
You live and you learn. One thing that is clear, is that I am part of something bigger than myself. It is the people around me and the nature I run in that will continue to drive and motivate me to push my personal boundaries. The thought of not having crossed the finish line have started to fade and as the days went by I picked up the lessons that this journey has taught me, which goes hand-in-hand with the words of one of the World’s greatest Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to have ever climbed Mount Everest: “It is not the mountains we conquer, but ourselves.”
Before wrapping up my recap, I want to deeply thank every single person that has supported me on this journey both near and far. I am extremely humbled by all the dear people that have donated so generously for the two great causes, but also all the ones that have messaged and called me. More so, a particular thanks goes out to all my friends, who have made their way to Chamonix and around the mountain to support me: Simon, Jack, Doug, Angus, Joe, Corrado, Otto, Manon, Micki, Adi and his family, my coach, my sister Mausi, my girlfriend Rach and of course my parents, without whom this whole adventure would have not been possible.
UTMB, see you next year.