ULTRA-TRAIL DU MONT BLANC 2019
For the second consecutive year, I had to drop out of the Ultra-Trail Du Mont Blanc (“UTMB”). Another missed opportunity is heartbreaking and hurts. I was progressing through all the ups and downs of the course, but eventually got caught up by hallucinations that ended my race after 150 kilometers.
After last year’s event (Race Report: Ultra-Trail Du Mont Blanc 2018), I had promised myself not to experience the pain of a DNF (“Did Not Finish”) again. I left Chamonix in 2018 with the goal to return and finish the course. So, when I drove up the mountain pass and arrived in Chamonix on Wednesday, I felt good. I had learned my lessons and put in the required work over the last 365 days to complete UTMB. I was excited to get the race started.
At 18:00 on Friday, 30th August, UTMB commenced. More than 2300 runners embarked on their journey around Mont Blanc. The streets of Chamonix were packed with people, clapping, chanting, cheering us on. I had goosebumps. I started running covering the first kilometers of the race. I was feeling positive about this year.
Les Houches and Saint-Gervais marked the first two aid stations along the way. At the latter, I met fellow runner James Poole. James is an inspiring man that had gone from being an asset manager to running more than 400 kilometer through the Gobi desert and is now in charge of one of London’s biggest running communities called AdventRunning. Unfortunately, he had to realize at an early stage that it was not going to be his day as he was struggling with stomach problems. It was the first time that I actually met James in person, as I had only followed his journey through Instagram. It was brief encounter, yet it was underlining the power of social media and our sport to connect people.
When I arrived in Les Contamines Montjoie, the clock showed 22:38, and I met my dad for the first time. Throughout the event there are five aid stations, where runners can receive support from a dedicated person. Speaking of connecting people, only later did I find out that my father had a wonderful encounter with a Canadian fella, who was supporting his mate during the race. Given the crowded public transport, shortage in parking and thousands of supporters along the course, the two joined forces and forged their way to Contamines together, in order to support us runners.
During the uphill to Refuge De La Croix Du Bonhomme, I passed La Balme and I started to encounter the first signs of tiredness. However, instead of ignoring such, I had promised myself at the start, to rest whenever I would feel tired, in order to mitigate any hallucinations at a later stage. I guess only later did I realize that such was not enough. Fortunately, the first night was not as cold as last year’s and I was fine with wearing shorts, a thick fleece, rain jacket and gloves.
After I reached the peak, I started the descend to Les Chapieux, where I felt particularly bad last year. Focused on the trail and with last year’s experience in mind, I ventured downhill and reached the aid station in good spirit. I recharged my batteries and continued my journey around Mont Blanc. Comparing my times with 2018, I was certainly slower on the ascends to Col De La Seigne and Pyramides Calcaires, yet I was feeling well. I took a short pit-stop at Lac Combal and run up to Arête Du Mont Favre before heading downhill to Courmayeur, which marked the half-way point after 81.3 kilometers.
At 11:47, I arrived at the Mountain Sport Center in Courmayeur. I am not entirely sure, how, why and where I had lost time in comparison to 2018 and my prediction for this year. Nevertheless, unlike last year, I decided to take naps at specific aid stations, so I found myself lying on a gym mattress for around 20 minutes trying to regain some energy. Though I had to be conscious of time, I was in good spirit going into the second half of the race. It started with a steep incline to Refuge Bertone, followed by a flowy single trail to Refuge Bonatti and a downhill section to Arnouvaz.
After a couple of minutes of rest in Arnouvaz, I was ready to conquer one of the hardest peaks of the course Grand Col Ferret sitting at 2582 meters of altitude. As I was getting closer to the top, the weather changed. It started to rain, which then turned into hail. We could hear the thunder right above us and lighting was striking by our sides. It was windy, cold, and truthfully, a bit scary considering that we were exposed and with no shelter in sight. Luckily, I was already wearing my rain jacket as I was anticipating a change in temperature, so that I only had to put my rain pants, buff and gloves before heading down the hill. The trail turned slippery and the public roads to La Fouly were shut down meaning that my mum was unable to get to the station.
The sun had set, before I had arrived at La Fouly, so that I had to use my head lamp. Unfortunately, this turned into the same dilemma as last year. I had actually bought a brand-new Silva Trail Speed 3XT to mitigate this issue, but instead of clear night vision, there was an issue with the battery, so that the lamp did not function. Given the poor weather and seeing that I was not too far away from the station, I decided to keep my spare head lamp in my backpack and leverage the light of a fellow runner by my side.
At 21:21, I arrived at the aid station in La Fouly. I drank vegetable bouillon to heat up my body and ate salty crackers. I refilled my water bottles, put on my spare headlamp and run towards Champex Lac. Unfortunately, this section was almost be a copy of last year, as I had no light and experienced first signs of hallucination. Given the poor quality of my spare headlamp, I was barley able to see anything on my way to Champex Lac and mainly relied on the light of fellow runners. I was frustrated and I guess it did not help my mental state by literally tapping in the dark. It took me four hours to get to Champex Lac, where I arrived at 1:23 on Sunday morning. Given the time and the lack of full memory of that section, I feel that I may have fallen asleep somewhere in between.
I met my dad for the third time, who was really fantastic throughout the event and supported me brilliantly at each stop. We had a quick chat, I ate my pizza, drank some Red Bull, lied down for a few minutes before continuing the course. I passed Plan De L’Au and eventually arrived in La Gìete. Similar to last year, during this segment I was going through some highs and lows, dropping in and out of consciousness. Yet, together with an Italian runner, I was able to complete the section, during which I felt terrible last year. We entered the little wooden shack, which formed the check-point, and run downhill to Trient. I was overcome by a feeling of joy seeing that I had past last year’s final destination and I was nearing the finish line.
I arrived in Trient at 7:03 on Sunday morning greeted by my sister and dad. We were nearing the cut-off time, but I was feeling eager to finish the course, enjoying the sunshine along the way and excited to complete my mission. With the time limit at the back of my mind, I started the climb to Les Tseppes. It all seemed to be going according to plan until an inner switch flipped and I entered the decisive state of hallucination. I had suddenly lost my consciousness and believed to be participating in a corporate run by a company called Veganz, which is a flourishing German vegan food business. I was reading an article about the firm on Friday morning during breakfast before the race and it seemed to have been caught in my subconsciousness.
I thought to be running within a park in a city that I cannot fully recall. It may have been Vancouver, but I am not quite sure. In my mental state, I was annoyed at the situation, as I simply did not want to take part in this ‘company run’. I turned around to go back down the hill and then hiked back up again for two to three times. Eventually, I made it to the peak of Les Tseppes, where I thought to find a party organised by Veganz including a free goodie bag for every runner. Obviously, there was no party and no goodie bag, instead I passed the checkpoint. I was still lost in my world and I did not understand why they were scanning my bib. I ventured onward. At times, I thought that I was running a ‘second tier version’ of UTMB, where slower competitors run a different route and eventually get to cross the finish line as a group in Chamonix. Then, I really started to feel my body deteriorating. My feet were aching and my legs were soar. I was slowly moving forward, but stopped every few meters. More and more runners started to overtake me, but I was unable to connect the dots. I had no idea where I was. I became a bit anxious and scared, because I did not know how to get down the mountain. More time had passed. Suddenly, I recalled an e-mail by the marketing manager of Veganz, which said that I was dropped from UTMB and had to run in this ‘company event’ instead. In my imagination, I had identified the marketing manager as an American runner that was actually encouraging me earlier to continue the race, when I had turned around and descended the hill. When I thought of this e-mail, I decided to actually call my mum to inform her that I was not allowed to compete in UTMB. When we spoke, she initially understood that I did not make the cut-off time, because I did not feel well, hence I was dropped from the event. When we ended the call, I immediately started to search the e-mail inbox on my phone trying to find the message from Veganz. Obviously, I could not retrieve this non-existent message, which triggered my mind to regain consciousness and make me realize that I was only hallucinating. I could not believe it. I immediately called my mum again to inform her about my realization. At that point, I had missed the cut-off in Vallorcine at 11:15.
By that time, my dad had started to hike up towards me and a couple of minutes later he arrived at the place where I was waiting. We sat down on the rocks and I told him about my hallucination. Again, it was not the experience that I wished to be sharing with my father, but similar to last year, it was a powerful moment. We hiked down and arrived at the check point in Vallorcine, where my mum was waiting in the car. I was gutted. The last thing I wanted, was to return to Chamonix in a car. I was so close, yet so far away. I had run more than 152 kilometers and I overcame more than 9000 meters of vertical gain, but I did not cross the finish line.
A couple of days have passed and I have spent time reflecting upon the events in Chamonix before returning to Frankfurt. Even though it really sucks to work so hard and feel like you have failed to achieve your goal, these experiences shape your life. Not finishing UTMB, does not mean that I will drop my goal, instead it allowed to me to grow further and appreciate the journey. However, given the fact that I am missing 6 points - which you receive if you finish a race of the hardest category - to be eligible to run UTMB next year, I have decided against hustling to complete the necessary course this year. The only realistic option would take place in Italy (137.7 kilometer, 7310 meters of vertical gain) in less than six weeks, which simply would not be feasible and good for my body. Above all, I also do not want to feel like I am forcing or rushing the process. Hence, I decided to use 2020 to qualify for the 2021 edition. Besides, this will also give me time to find the reasons for my hallucinations and figure out how to prevent them.
After all, I want to say ‘Merci Beaucoup’ to every single one of you. I am forever grateful to everyone that has reached out to me throughout the entire journey and continue to support this pursuit of mine. I highly appreciate all of the messages and words that I have received in due course. More so, I would like thank every individual that has donated their hard earned money to my fundraiser for A Chacun Son Everest (“ACE”). Together, we have been able to collect Euro 2,000.00 to fund on-going projects of the organisation. ACE, and above all the young children, greatly appreciate your support. In fact, when they told me about how the children are looking up to the UTMB and perceive us runners as ‘heroes’ - finisher or not - offering faith and hope to their journey, it reminded me once more that running is not only about finish lines and medals, but has a far greater purpose. ACE thanked us for the support and left the following words with me: “Obstacles don’t have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it.” – Michael Jordan
So, with this in mind, I will move on. I will continue to run with my heart and a dream in mind. Ultra-Trail Du Mont Blanc 2021, I am coming for you.