Thursday, April 5, 2012

One Giant ultra… Home stretch (Part 6)

Angelia getting ready for a cold night
Section 6

Erin joined us for a little bit and we climbed the endless stairs out of the lower valley. Eventually I told Erin to turn around. Trails are addictive, but she had no lights and going back down the stairs in darkness would be a very bad idea, plus I needed her to take care of me. We climbed up more and were treated to amazing views as the sun set for the fifth night. Angelia has slept more than me and is a better hiker. I worked hard to keep up with her, but I knew this would help me make up more time. We made it to the first aid station and we were told to stay in groups of two or more as snow was forecast. We filled our bottles, I had some hot tea and we kept going. With the darkness and fatigue we got off course for a bit and had to backtrack. I forgot to add new batteries to my pack and had choice between batteries in my garmin or flashlight. I had to swap batteries back and forward when I needed to check the trail. My ankle was starting to hurt more. On what should have been an easy section we were moving slowly, trying to stay on course and awake. Eventually we got to a rifugio. They had beds and we decided a 30-minute sleep would help. An hour later someone woke us up. It was OK, we still had time. As we headed out an unhappy Frenchman shouted at Angelia. He had wanted to join us, but we were going too fast for him. We weren’t going that fast.

We left back out into the dark and cold, my ankle now really hurting. I felt maybe I could make it to the next life station then drop. I don’t believe in running through pain. I took three Advil just to allow me to keep moving and stay warm. I told Angelia to go ahead. We had maybe five minutes of snow but now the skies were clear and I needed some time alone to re-evaluate things. I had to move slowly to protect my ankle, but at least I was able to move at all. Every so often it would hurt when it landed the wrong way. To add to the fun we were now on the edge of what seemed to be a cliff and narrow trail that fell away into darkness. Someone starting calling “is this the right way?” I hadn’t seen a marker so stopped and did a garmin check. It was right so I kept going. However, the trail got worse. I eventually made it to the rifugio cunny. I was in a lot of pain. I didn’t know how much further I would be able to go. I knew it may be all over for me. Angelia was having knee issues, we both were tired and hurting, both wanted to stop. Close was 12km away, down in the next village. It sounded like a good place to quit. We decided since it was around only an hour or so from dawn we might as well sleep for a bit then do the last section once it was light. It was meant to be a steep downhill back into the valley. I didn’t know if my ankle could take it. We slept for a bit, maybe 30 minutes, then I asked one of the volunteers if they had a bandage for my ankle. A nice volunteer got a bandage and wrapped my ankle. It seemed to feel a little better. I was getting chilled. This was one of my fears. You get to a point of exhaustion when you can no longer generate heat without moving. I had to get moving again. Shivering, I added several hand warmers inside my jacket and headed out to the cold morning and started slowly running.

Steep drop down to the Valley

The sun eventually rose with my body temperature and to my surprise I was able to somewhat run without pain. The bandage really helped. Ok maybe it wasn’t all over. I tried to talk Anglea into continuing also. The section to Close was much better than we feared and we got there feeling OK. I thought OK, I could at least make it to Ollomont. I always try and go one more aid station just in case I feel better later. It was hard to leave. Erin and the shuttle was waiting for us at Close, giving us the easy option to get a ride to a warm bed and food other than bread and cheese that had been my staple for the last four or more days. A cute blond Italian girl said the next section was easier, just a 600-metre climb. I asked Erin to see if she could get me pizza for the next life station. We had done 2000-plus-metre climbs earlier so 600-metres, that wasn’t too bad. I should have known better. I turned on my garmen to see the elevation, OK, I could do 600m. I started to climb… 200 metres, 300 metres.. 500 metres - the peak seemed much higher up. I wasn’t happy. Maybe we wouldn’t go to the top this time. Now 700 metres of climbing and still going up.. at last, at 800 metres, we starting going down… then I saw it.. a trail straight up with a few runners looking like ants. At that moment I decided I was going to quit at Ollomont. I had been lied to. There was at least 600 metres more of climbing. I had to been told it would be easier but this was another massive climb. I pushed to the top then started the long decent. Something felt wrong. My little toe on my right food was growing. Somehow a massive blister had formed. It felt like my toe was twice its size.

This Peak was twice as much climbing as I expected

It seemed the bandage that helped my ankle changed the fit of my shoe causing a massive blister on my toe. It felt like it was about to explode. I didn’t know the state of the blister but knew it was going to be ugly. I had been wearing the same shoes and socks for five days and an open wound in dirty socks was not a good idea. I stopped and looked for my blister kit in my pack, but couldn’t find it. I tentatively ran down the hill, trying not to cause the blister to burst. I had heard about stories of excruciating pain when blisters burst. I didn’t have time for pain. I had cut-offs to make. I forgot for a moment I was planning to quit.

Eventually I made it to the next stop and looked again in my bag and found my blister kit. I asked if the volunteers minded if I fixed my feet - I didn’t want to gross anyone out. I carefully peeled back my sock and to my surprise the blister had burst painlessly. I cleaned it up and added some tape to protect it and got back on my way. An official volunteer joined me and the runner behind me dropped. I was last and being escorted to the next and final life station. Erin came running up the trail to greet me. I asked if she had pizza. All I wanted was pizza but she said she didn’t have any. I was devastated. Pizza was the only thing that was going to keep me from quitting. As I came in everyone cheered. A camera man, perhaps from a local TV station asked if I was going to continue. I couldn’t disappoint them so I said yes. Damn, now I was going to have to finish this thing, pizza or no pizza. I checked my phone and found lots of nice messages including one from my brother and mum telling me to keep going. I had set up a “where-is Craig site” with a text messaging app so friends could see where I was and send me text messages to the phone I was running with. It had been a great boost during my low times and made me feel like I wasn’t doing this alone or just for myself. Friends seemed inspired by my efforts. I was going to finish this not for myself, but for everyone who had supported me with kind messages and everyone who felt inspired by me. I was going to finish this for my friends and family.

I had about 90 minutes at Ollomont before the final cut-off. Angela was there also and we both decided to continue. We had to be out my 7pm, we left with about five minutes to go. I got my ankle taped by the life station doctor, cleaned up my feet and got ready for the final 50km. I hoped it wouldn’t be too hard. I knew we had two major climbs. I thought if we could get the first climb done quickly we could make up more time and hopefully not be chasing cut-off until the end. I wanted to make up some time so I could get a few more hours sleep. I really wanted to sleep a little more.

I headed out with Angela to get this thing done. As usual we started climbing. Together we pushed up the hill. We were on a mission to get finished as soon as possible. We carefully studied this section before heading out. It looked like there was a good amount of flat stuff. If the trails were good we could be done sooner than expected, maybe even 12 hours. It started to look good. We had a good amount of fire roads to the first aid station. We took a little time to eat and refill our packs. As we were about to leave the course sweeps arrived. They were planning to sleep a few hours then head out after us and the last runners. We must have passed a few people on the way up. There was two still behind us who also were going to sleep and head out with the sweeps. We decided to continue. We headed out and realized it was really cold, went back in and changed into warmer gear and pants. A few minutes later we were out again climbing. Eventually we were on a nice runnable section. Please, please stay like this, I thought. I should have known better. The trail progressively got worse as we winded down into a canyon. The trail was not steep, but it was rocky and each rock hurt my blistered feet and threatened my ankle. I couldn’t even run on this almost-flat trail. It was so frustrating and I was getting more and more tired. We should have slept at the last aid station. Let’s just make it to the next one.

It took hours and hours. The trail just kept going, winding down and eventually we made it to a very basic aid station. Angela asked about sleeping and they showed us what they had. In the back, in what looked like a workshop that smelled like toxic chemicals, there was a room that smelt like dead animals with a gross stained mattress. We weren’t that tired. Maybe we were, but I didn’t think it was a place to sleep. I looked like something out a horror movie. We headed out. Maybe the next one would be better.

The trail was a little better, actually very runnable, but we were so both tired we just plodded along. More hours passed. We were both out of it, seeing things that didn’t exist, talking to imaginary friends, in and out of waking dreams. We tried talking to each other to stay awake. We tried running faster. Things looked very familiar in a place we had never been. I was convinced we were running in circles, but Angela seemed a little more aware than me. We ran along a river bank, past a cruise ship (that probably didn’t exist).

Please let the next aid station have somewhere to sleep. We got there eventually. It was just a tent with food, water. We asked about sleeping. The volunteers talked for a bit, looked at us pathetic half-asleep runners and showed us to a van. (I saw a van, Angela though it was an ambulance) In the back were some blankets and a clean mattress. To us it was as good as a five-star hotel. We got a good 15-30 minutes of sleep. My watch alarm went off after 15 minutes. It was the alarm I set for the day earlier. It was what we needed though. We got up, ate some more and headed on our way. It was going to be another tough section, but we were starting the final mountain of the race.

The sleep helped us but not for long. Soon we were tired and seeing things again, but it wasn’t as bad as before. General fatigue caught up with me and I struggled to keep up with Angela’s pace. We saw the next aid station, it was the other side of a ravine. I didn’t see any way across but maybe there would be a bridge. As we kept going I could see Angela’s lights moving further and further away. I thought maybe I could catch her, but my legs wouldn’t oblige. All I could do was keep moving. Following the ravine the aid station moved further away until it was out or site. Maybe that wasn’t it. After more climbing the course crossed above the ravine then started to wind back. I kept trying to go faster, but ended slowing down. I was losing energy. The trail in part was a muddy slop. My shoes became caked with heavy mud and eventually I ended in a maze of mud and rocks. Somehow I followed the scattered course flags, drawn to the lights of the aid station like an insect. More climbing, more mud, more rocks and eventually I was there. Angela and another runner were still there. I didn’t waste much time. I ate, refilled my pack and got moving before I got cold. The sun was almost up again and there was only one more mountain between us and the finish line.

I was so tired this looked like an Aid Station

The other runner was a professional mountain climber. He was only back with us because he was running and hiking only during the day and sleeping each night. We all headed out. My energy was still low and soon I was alone slowly climbing. Then my sleep deprivation came back with a vengeance. I was getting confused. I thought I saw another aid station, but it was just a rock. I came round a corner and started hiking up with someone just out on a hike. It was nice not to be alone and we seemed to be at the same pace. A few minutes later an old lady started hiking alongside me also. This was strange and I wondered where she came from. As I turned to the first hiker to mention I was hallucinating another hiker, he was gone. I realised neither were real. Damn I just told a hallucination about another hallucination. I felt I was losing it. I had two choices: either sleep or speed up. I was scared I would sleep for too long and miss the final cut-off so I speed up. I was going to give it everything until I made it to the top. Whenever I saw someone or something that may not be real I would blink a few times to see if it disappeared or not. Soon the trail became very technical and nothing wakes you up like fear of falling off a mountain.

Ropes and ladder for the final climb

The final climb was brutal. It got steeper and steeper. The trail became steep loose rocks, then finally steps attached to a rock face, followed by ropes to help scramble over the rocks. Below was a fall of hundreds of metres. A fall would have been pretty bad. As I made it to the final peak I saw a dog. I blinked and it remained and was joined by a hiker. They were real. He kindly took my picture. I said thanks and went on my way. I had maybe 10 more miles and my journey would be over. I hoped for no more surprises, but I assumed there would be.

Happy to have made the final climb

The decent was beautiful and of course seemed endless. I would be dropping more than 1000 metres. I ran the best I could. I sure a tortoise could have gone faster that it’s the best I had at that time. Eventually the trail became less steep and I was able to run a little faster. Maybe I would catch Angela. I kept going. It seemed to take hours, but eventually I came to Ref Bentoni. Only 12km to go now. I saw Angela leave as I arrived. I ate a little more, refilled, and was out a few minutes later. As I left it started raining. I got a good pace then got stuck behind some cows. I eventually made it around them and started running again. The trail had become wet and slippery. I slipped and almost fell a few times.

I saw a runner behind me. I tried to speed up more. At least I wasn’t last. I must have passed someone during the last section. Trying to keep up speed resulted in me slipping and landing in the mud on my butt. My shorts were caked in dark brown and somewhat stinky mud. I thought now great. I’m going to run through town and people will think I shit myself or something. A little bit later I came to the final aid station. I went to a restroom first and cleaned up my shorts, then got some coke, refilled and kept going. Only a few more kilometres left and this journey would be over. Again I was treated to more technical downhill with plenty of rocks. The other running caught and passed me being a better downhill runner or maybe being better rested than me.

Eventually I saw Courmayeur. I just had to get down the hill a little bit more. Before I knew it I was on the road into town. It was a little surreal. I started to run as hard as I could. I was passing regular people walking who congratulated me. I knew very soon I would be done. I had received a text message saying all my friends, new and old, were waiting for me to finish. I saw a familiar looking group as I arrived at the church… but the finish line wasn’t there. I was a little disappointed. Did they take down the finish line already? No. I was told to keep running, the finish line was just down the road. TDG had tricked me again. I didn’t care. A group of local kids in traditional costumes and with cow bells started running with me. Everyone was cheering as I entered the town square and saw the finish line. I was done. They scanned my chip but I didn’t know my final time. I knew it was Sunday and it was before 4pm and I knew finally I was finished. I had finished my toughest race. I had finished despite everything TDG had thrown at me. I had managed to work through all the problems and somehow finish strong. The organisers had me sign a poster, which all the finishers signed. Then I was interviewed and asked if I was going to come back the following year. I said I didn’t know. (Will I run TDG again, I still don’t know)

Erin and all my friends were there for me. They took me in to a room where I saw one drop bag. Was I last? I guessed I was. But after a few minutes another runner came in. OK I wasn’t last. We went to eat at a local creperie. I was really hungry and had an amazing crepe. We walked back to the finish area so I could find my drop bag. It turned out these were back at the check-in place where there were also showers and massage. I could use a massage and really really needed a shower.

148 hours and 38 minutes after I started, I had finished. That’s six days, four hours and 38 minutes. I had only slept about six hours in that time. Even though the race was 332km or 206 miles, I had made few wrong turns that had added between five and 10km. I would say I did 210miles - a nice round number.

My Finish Interview

Special Thanks to Megan Hogarth for editing.

One Giant ultra… (Part 5)

Running out of Time... My stopwatch stopped at 99:59:59

Section 5

I followed some roads, missed a turn, but luckily didn’t go too far and got back on course. I had to focus. Eventually we started a climb. It was dark and the climb was fairly steep with steps. Another runner had joined me and it made things a little easier. Hold on. Where were the markers? I checked and my garmin looked right. My new friend said the next turn had the marker. It was his mountain and he did the marking. He had also built the steps, planted the grass and was pointing out sights on the way up. He just directed me up the hill, telling me there were only a few more switchbacks to the top. I was so tired. My friend told me I didn’t really have to go to the top. It was optional since the race route turned a while back. I wanted to see the top of his mountain, but I could use the extra time and saw someone else coming down. Maybe I should save the time and visit the peak another time, I turned around… The person coming down called out. “Are you OK?” I mumbled something about being in the race and was… hold on… my friend vanished as reality took hold. There was no friend. I had been about to turn around and go the wrong direction and follow a hallucination. I really needed sleep. After almost 100hrs of being awake I was losing my sense of reality. The aid station volunteer had walked down to me and walked me into the next stop. An elderly lady looked at me with a concerned face… and told me in broken English “you need bed”. I didn’t hesitate and said yes. I set my alarm for a 45-minute sleep. I didn’t have much time since I was still close to cut-offs. I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.

Two hours later the elderly lady woke us up and said there was a bus that could take us back coming in a few hours and there wasn’t really time to make it to the next valley, and she was making breakfast.

Shit. I had overslept. I was more than an hour behind the unofficial cut-off. I threw my gear on and refilled my pack. I quickly asked the other volunteer if I had time, but was told it was “not possible to make it across the valley in time for the official cut-off”. Not again... that was what I get for sleeping. But maybe the sleep had given me the energy to make up the time. This was the third time I’d been told “not possible”. Again I ignored the possible and went for it. Now it was a race. 130miles in I was going to have to run. Really really run. And the next section still had plenty of climbing. I didn’t know but I just ran and hiked with everything I had. I told myself I wouldn’t give up. I would fight until the final cut-off. I felt like I was running a 10km. Sweat was pouring off me, even in the cold of the night. The sleep had helped, but I was burning through my energy at a dangerous rate. When I had time I would deal with that. But for now it was all I had. Eventually I made the peak. Daylight broke for the fifth time. I stopped and breathed for a minute, took a picture. This could be my last peak.

Thinking this was my last peak

A wave of sadness flowed over me, but I fought back the tears. I needed to be able to see well, I didn’t have time to cry. I turned my video camera on and ran down the hill as fast as I could safely. I kept running and fast hiking. After a while I saw a building, it looked like a rifugio. Was this it? Was this when I would find out if it was over or not? I had lost my map and I didn’t know the cut-offs. I approached the building then passed it… it wasn’t it. I pushed harder and entered a village. Maybe this was it. I stopped for a second to fill some water, just in case it was further. I didn’t want to run out of water again. I came round a corner and saw a marker on the door of a building. I entered and ran up the stairs. I asked.. did I make it? Did I still have time? The volunteer wrote my number down. I asked again. Is there still time? He said next cut-off was St Jacque at 2pm, about one-and-a-half hours away. It was about 8am. I had plenty of time. Again I had done it. I was back in the game. What I was told would take five to six hours I had done in three. Never believe something is “not possible” until you have tired. I took about 15 minutes to refuel before heading out. I was at St Jacque in less than two hours. Now I was two hours ahead of the cut-off. They had cake here. I love cake and ate a lot of it and took more with me. I didn’t waste any time. I knew this race could throw anything at me. Fuelled on cake and a total of almost four hours sleep I thought maybe I would be done soon. I only had about 100km to go. It was 10am Thursday, four days after I had started. It would be great if I was done before Friday night. 30 hours for 100km seemed possible.

Running through mountain villages

I climbed up from St Jacque. I was invincible. I had made the cut-off. Maybe I was last, I was pretty sure I was. But I didn’t care. For the first time I felt I could do this. And at this rate I would actually get to the next life station during the day. I was treated to great views and called Erin to request pizza and let her know my schedule. I made good time up and down the hill and tried not to waste any time at the referoes. At 4pm I rolled into Cretaz, life station five, five hours ahead of the cut-off. I just had to keep this effort up and I would be done in no time. Now I even had time to sleep. I started eating. I even managed to beat Erin to the life station this time. She arrived a few mins later and I had some mashed potato. She wasn’t able to get pizza, which seemed a little strange since we were in Italy. My food was pasta and mashed potato. I also got some chips and other snacks before heading off for some sleep. I lay down and tried to sleep. I wasn’t tired. I just wanted to get this done. I was still pumped for pushing so hard and making the cut-offs. Two hours was enough of a break and I got up and ready to go. Angela was considering dropping - we had run a while together. Luckily she talked to a doctor and they taped her knees up. We headed out together for the next section.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

One Giant ultra… (Part 4)

Section 3

The climb was tough, but not as bad as the last day. We got to run through some meadows and it was a great day - no rain, not to hot or too cold. I was having a great birthday run. I spent a little time at the refreshment stop before heading up to the peak. I made pretty good time climbing up. I was feeling good and decided to try and run down some fairly technical stuff. What was I thinking? It was so much fun dancing over the rocks trying not to fall, then we had a long runnable downhill section. I was excited to make up so much time and have plenty to time to relax, sleep and not worry about cut-offs. Before this thought had even passed I felt a pain in my right knee. Maybe it would pass, I hoped. I stopped and stretched, massaged and tried again, but it didn’t help. I tried walking, that hurt. I tried running faster, that felt OK sometimes. It seemed a slow walk was best so I slowly walked down, with the odd run and break. Again my plan to be done with a section early was not going to happen. I was mad. I had to fix this. I wasn’t going to drop on my birthday. I just took it easy and kept positive thoughts. I hoped it was just a sore muscle and would be better after a little break. Tayna caught up to me and we hiked and ran most of the last part together. The little bump on the elevation chart turned out to be a major climb before the final decent. Eventually we got to a town. Tanya had gone ahead and I saw her outside a pizza place in the town. I was happy to be near the next life station, but no….another TDG surprise. We ran though the town, out of the town and one runner came back saying we had missed the life station. But luckily Roberta, one person crazy enough to run the test run last year and then come back and do it again, caught up and told us we had another three or four kilometres to go up that hill. So we leave the village, enter another village, leave that village. On the way out there was some amazing artwork painted on the massive rock faces that we were running by. I looked a little closer and realised it was just rocks and shadows. I had been going almost three days without sleep and I guess I was starting to see things. Eventually we entered a third village and eventually made it to the third life station. It was really nice to finish a section in daylight, but I needed time to let my knee recover and deal with some serious chaffing. I spent about four hours here again. I tried to sleep and maybe got one hour or less before I gave up and got ready to go again. Around 10:30pm I was back on the trail.

Section 4

It seemed this time we got endless steep giant rock steps to climb. More than half of the North America group had dropped either due to injury or sleep deprivation. I had plenty of great reasons to quit, but nobody had told me to stop yet and that was my rule. The good news was the break had let my knee recover and it was feeling great now.

I had now been going for almost three days with total sleep of maybe 1.5hrs. Things were starting to get interesting in my mind. Eventually Angela caught up with me. We joked about everything being giant at Tor des Geants. I said this was meant for giants, not for regular people like us. I was hoping for another easier section, but no we were back to the tough stuff and life was about to get a whole lot tougher soon. We climbed and climbed. Angela, being an amazing climber, moved ahead of me and soon I was alone for hours and hours of climbing. Here we were coming from the lowest point of the course, climbing 2000metres. You would gain some elevation, drop, then climb again. It was relentless and I was getting really tired. It levelled out a little, but the trail wasn’t clear. In the darkness and my exhausted state I kept getting off the trail. What should have taken a few hours was taking much longer. I couldn’t focus. I wasn’t sure what way to go. I didn’t really know if I was asleep or awake. I needed to sleep, rest or something, but the next rest stop was nowhere to be seen. I kept tripping over rocks, even my feet. I found a rock and laid down. I don’t know for how long. I think it was only a few minutes. I don’t think I really slept just closed my eyes, tried to refocus, regain some energy. After a few minutes some more runners came - a nice French couple, maybe a father and his daughter. I decided it was best to follow them. Listening to them talk and following their lights helped so much. We also entered a very technical area, traversing some rocks that required using ropes. I was pleased I had taken a break and was not alone anymore.

Tired is falling asleep taking a picture of yourself

The trail stayed technical, up and down over rocks. After what seemed many more hours and night turned to day for the fourth time I made it to the next refreshment stop. I didn’t fill my water or eat, I just went into the Rifugio, sat at a table, closed my eyes for a few minutes and ordered a hot chocolate.

Hot chocolate in Italy is very different. I had forgotten about that, but remembered when this cup of thick melted chocolate arrived. I ordered some milk to dilute it so it was at least a drink. It was so good - the chocolate, sugar and milk energized me. On my way out I saw a sign saying they had beds… I thought about it - sleep would be a good idea - but decided it would be best to keep going. I filled my water and heading out, now I had chocolate power.

Eventually after more than four hours of sleep-deprived climbing I was going downhill. I even ran a little - the trail was pretty nice for a change. I felt pretty good, but was worried how long the chocolate high would last. After too soon it seemed I was climbing again and felt a hotspot on my foot. I stopped for a bit to tape my toe and sat a little longer for a little break and to prepare myself for the next climb. Again I was climbing then descending down a technical trail. After a while longer I made it to the next refreshment stop where there was some cots setup. I wanted to sleep, but also wanted to keep going and make up some good time. I ate a little and then kept going. I was getting tired again.

We started climbing up again, back to crazy rock fields. It was extremely steep and treacherous. One false step could have been really serious. Where were we going again? Ah yes I was visiting my friend. Why does he live all the way up here? His house must be right around this corner, OK maybe the next corner. This is a stupid place to live. I guess this is what we do for friends...climb stupid mountains… Suddenly I came back to reality, of course I wasn’t visiting a friend. It was my brain sleep-deprived, confused, maybe trying to help me, maybe not. At least I somehow kept moving and got over the mountain.

Now we were going downhill again and things started to look really familiar. I recognized the rock formation - it was crazy insane rock fields again, markers dotted across the landscape, up and down over massive boulders, but I knew it. I felt I’d been here before and it was going to level out soon. I kept going and met up with another runner. He was from Budapest or somewhere. We hiked the rocks (trail doesn’t describe it) together. A hiker came from the other direction said we had one more kilometre to go before the trail got better. After a long kilometre the trail levelled out and I was able to run a little. It all looked very familiar from when was I here before.

We made it to a checkpoint. They didn’t have water, but had some coke. I was getting low on water. Maybe I forgot to fill up at the last point…I couldn’t remember. It was 10km downhill to the next refreshment stop. I knew this hill, OK it was steeper, and it was wet and slippery at parts. My energy was low, I was thirsty and just finished my water. I knew there was some sort of spring a few kilometres down the trail. I remembered I had done this section during UTMB*. I remember I was running with guy who told me about this race. We ran this trail and stopped and got water at the spring. It was going to be OK. At every rock face I looked for the spring - water directly from rocks is drinkable since it is filtered by the rocks. After a while two runners caught up to me as I passed a massive spring. I asked if it was OK to drink and they said yes so I filled my bottle with fresh mountain water. One of the runners was holding marker flag, which I thought that was strange. I kept hiking and enjoying the water. A few minutes later two more runners came up and were pulling the markers. “Shit”, I though. They were the sweeps. I was the last runner… I needed to move. I started to run powered by fear of cut-offs and mountain water. I ran fast, well it felt fast. I ran uphill, downhill, past the guys ahead of me, then the next runners, then more. I pushed hard. I didn’t know how long I had, I just knew the cut-offs must be close and somehow in my sleep-deprived state I had lost hours. I made it to Neil. Now I faced another massive climb and with very little time left. It was about 20km and I had about five hours. That seemed like plenty of time, but this section usually takes six hours. I pushed the pace as hard as I could, passed three or four more runners. Near the top I was literally leaping up rocks, using my poles to push. Then my foot hit a rock at the wrong angle. I tripped and fell, twisting my ankle. It didn’t feel too bad and I didn’t have time for this. I had to keep moving and did. Eventually I caught another runner at the top of the hill and the sun set for another night.

It was hard to follow the markers. The trail was a nice downhill, but it was all uneven dirt. Every step hurt my ankle and I had to move slowly to keep my ankle straight. My light was better than the French guys. He kept calling me to shine my light for him. I would point my light to show the reflective markers and then trip on the trail, sending pain through my ankle.

Racing for a cut-off with a sprained ankle wasn’t good. The good news was I made it up the trail so fast I had a good amount of time to make it down, and didn’t have to run fast. Best of all I knew this trail, I had been here before*. Eventually we made it to the next rest stop. I filled my water and got some food and the French guy seemed relaxed. I decided to head out. I knew there wasn’t much time. They asked me if I was stopping, I said no. They looked at me and said there wasn’t time. I knew there was because there wasn’t a cut-off here. I started to run again. The ankle seemed to hold up and the trail was a little better for a while.

Down a rocky road, across meadows, over a grassy and stone bridge to an endless road of rocks. No vehicle could every drive on this so it was actually a trail. Somehow I hiked and ran this thing for another hour or so before eventually making it to the road. Erin was there waiting to walk me in. I thought I was at the life station, but no, it was a few more kilometres before I would get my break. At least now I knew I was going to make the cut-off although I would have a little less than two hours before needing to head out again. Hopefully I could get a little sleep. I was lucky I knew that last trail section.*

*When I got home I looked at the map for UTMB. I had never run that trail before. It is 100miles from the UTMB course. The whole time my mind was playing tricks on me and I didn’t realize until I was back, a week later writing up this race report notes.

I arrived at Grassoney and accidentally checked out before I checked in giving me minus six seconds in that life station, I was there a little longer. After eating and taking care of other issues I tried to sleep. I did some basic taping on my ankle, checked my feet and an hour had passed. I lay down, closed my eyes and again didn’t sleep. Thirty minutes later I got up and started to get ready to head out back into the night. I didn’t know if the next section would be hard or easy, I just wanted to get this race over and be able to really relax and sleep. I didn’t want to be fighting cut-offs for the next 50 hours. I had covered 200km in about 90 hours and had less than two hours sleep. It was getting harder to focus. I hoped the next section would be easier.

One Giant ultra… (Part 3)

Section 2

Off I went into the darkness, slowly climbing out from the village. The climb didn’t feel as too bad, but I was moving very slowly. Before I reached the summit the sun was up again and I was treated to an amazing sunrise. The last section became even steeper and more technical, but eventually I made it. I thought I was ready for the downhill…. I wasn’t

Very steep downhill section

There is downhill, there is steep downhill and then there is insanely steep crazy switchback downhill. I looked down in disbelief. How was I going to get down that without trashing my legs? Not only was it steep, but it went down for what seemed forever. I was going down almost as slowly as I went up. For me it mostly unrunnable. I would feel my knees and quads burning just trying to run. I thought “oh well I’ve got plenty of time” and just hiked down the best I could.

After hours it became somewhat runnable. I ran for maybe two minutes before falling on my ass. My only injury was a broken hiking pole, but it really hurt because they were really expensive carbon fibre ultra-light poles. A while later I made it to the next refreshment stop. I took a while here to regroup and try and do something with my broken pole. I ended up with one long pole and one short pole. One of the biggest climbs of the race was next and I wanted my poles.

I met up with another North American runner who was having a tough time so we went out together. Slowly we began climbing again - the endless climb that steadily got steeper and steeper. I just kept going, knowing at some point there would be a downhill. The views made up for the effort so I took photos. We saw mountain goats as we made our way up endless rocks and insane switchbacks. It was also a treat to reach a peak during daylight and get to enjoy the views. Best of all there was a small rescue tent where they had dropped extra water and Coke. Usually I avoid anything with caffeine, but I needed something so I had a few cups of Coke. It gave me the boost I needed. Slowly we made our way down. On the way Leslie, Angelia, Tayna and a bunch of the Canadians and American passed us. They had slept the first night and flew by looking very fresh.

I stopped to fix a hotspot on my foot and was then able to catch up to a few of them. This was one of the few runnable sections of the race so I slowly jogged down the hill and eventually made it down to a nice refreshment stop. A large group of my North American friends were there and we all got to relax for a little bit while getting ready for the last section before the life station. My plan was to try and sleep for the first time at the next life station. Just as I was about to leave Gabi and Erin arrived, it was great to see them briefly then I was on my way. I gave Gabi the broken end of my pole and mentioned if they could find some cheap poles for 25 euros to get them.

I was off. We started up a another massive climb, hold on, I thought there were only two big climbs, but no, look we have a bonus one that wasn’t on the elevation profile, woo hoo, bonus climb! Ok I wasn’t happy about it. To add to the insult I caught my unbroken pole on a rock and “snap”. Now my poles matched. Things just got better in the TDG way. Eventually we started downhill, but I could only describe the trail as a rock blocks trail. Some were like stairs, others were just random blocks, markers were randomly placed and we had to find a route down. It took forever, but eventually I entered a village. I thought “at last I’m here”. I was excited to see everyone and I thought I could make it before my birthday. One of the reasons I signed up was my birthday was during the race and I like to run on my birthday. I followed the markers in then out of the village…”Ok where do I go now?” Then down onto another trail and a long endless fire road. Then onto some more trails, up and down, eventually up a hill to a locked gate. Where are the markers? I had missed a turn. I backtracked half a mile and found the turn, now it was past midnight. Today I needed to run my age. I decided in kilometres would be fine. Eventually I rolled into the life station. Gabi and Erin sung Happy Birthday to me. I felt 10 years older, tired and hungry and I wasn’t even a third of the way yet. The best news was Gabi and Erin somehow found me new poles for 25 euros. It was the best birthday gift ever. Ok they felt like lead compared to my carbon fibre twigs, but hopefully they would last a little longer.

I tried to sleep, but couldn’t. After about 30 minutes I gave up and started to get ready again. I took care of things. The chaffing was getting worse and I was worried. I still had a long way to go. I was told this next section was easier and it was my birthday so I hoped it would be a good day.

One Giant ultra… Off we go (Part 2)

Following Beat and Chris as we leave town

Section 1:

As I had hoped, and judging by my experience the previous year at Ultra Trail Du Mont Blanc, it was an epic start - classical music echoed off the stone buildings and the energy of 310 runners about to embark on an amazing journey. I got a good-luck hug from Erin and Gabi and headed to the start line where I found Beat and Chris. I realized I forgot to do a few things and quickly took care of them in the last few minutes. With about one minute to go I was ready. At 10am on Sunday morning we began our adventure. I was unable to keep up with Beat’s pace, but I had a similar pace to Chris and we made our way up the first climb. Chris also takes amazing pictures and I was looking forward to seeing them, especially the ones I’m featured in. Everyone seemed to be going out pretty fast or I was just slow. I decided to hold back, my plan was to take the first 100mile easy so I had something left for the last 100-plus miles. Soon I realized there would be no taking it easy. The course was so tough that taking it easy and moving wasn’t possible. I settled for trying to not push too hard and did what I could to keep moving at a reasonable rate or at least faster than the required 1.5 mph.

Looking back down toward the Start

The first 17km to La Thulie was tough and took me four hours, but was still on my 100-hour schedule. It was great to see Gabi and Erin at La Thulie and I was feeling great - at this rate maybe I would make it to the first life station before dark. After I left Thulie it all changed. The trails became much steeper. The ups were often giant rock steps and other less steep or downhill sections became technical to a point when I was climbing over boulders. In my effort to somehow navigate and keep moving I followed a group of runners across a massive boulder field and realized I was on the wrong side. I think the other runners were taking an alternate route, but I wanted to follow the official course so had to cross back to get on the trail again. Getting back on course involved some minor rock climbing. By the time I was back on the correct trail I had added a mile and about 40 minutes. It seemed all the trails now were too technical for me to run on, whether they were up, down or flat. Hours and hours passed. I asked a French runner, who was familiar with these trails, if there were more sections like this. He grinned and said yes. As I climbed up the pass the sun set and darkness fell. I went up some steps cut into the side of a cliff that dropped off to a black abyss. There was a safety rope that I held tightly until we moved away from that section. So much for making it before dark. Eventually we dropped back into the valley. I saw TDG signs, arrows painted on the street so knew I was getting close. Those 30km took me 10 hours. Now I was scared. What had I got myself into? The first 50km took me 14 hours.

Crazy Rocky Section see the runner by the big rock

Here a zoomed in version of the same image

I came into Valgrisenche, the first life station, about 1am on Monday. As I entered I was given something that looked like a chocolate cookie on a ribbon, but before I tried to eat it I realized it was a wooden medal. Each life station gave us a medal so my plan became to get all seven. I also realized since I almost ate my medal I probably needed some food.

The life stations were the major aid stations with areas to sleep, hot food and showers, access to your drop bag and crew. It was great to see Erin and Gabi there. I didn’t want to spend too much time, but end staying a little over an hour regrouping and figuring out how I was ever going to finish this race. The first 50km was harder than anything I had done before or even imagined. Some of my friends, who had slept or tried to sleep, were still at the life station. I was treated to pizza, pasta and other goodies from my crew and life station. Another concern was I had the start of some chaffing, not good for so early in the race so I tried to take care of it and hoped it wouldn’t get worse.

Eventually I headed out into the night hoping the next section would be a little easier. On my way out I Gabi warned me it was going to be harder with some major climbs.

One Giant ultra… (Part 1)

One Giant ultra…

Disclaimer: this report is based on facts and events that either happened in reality or in my sleep-deprived and confused mind.

The name “Tor des Geants” means tour of the giants and it refers to some of the highest mountains in the Alps including Gran Paradiso, Monte Rosa, the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc that climb from 13,000ft to almost 16000ft. Luckily on our tour we only pass by them and not actually climb these monsters. Our highest point was 3300m or 11,000ft. Being the inaugural running of TDG I didn’t know what I was getting into. I’d only seen the course DVD, a 30-minute video of a test run completed last year to check the route and see if it was possible. Tour des Geants looked epic and amazing. It had a seemingly generous cut-off of 150 hours, or six days, six hours to cover the 332km (206 miles). It sounded fairly easy - that’s just walking at 1.5mph. Of course there would be a few breaks and a little sleep. Luckily I don’t need much sleep so I thought I had a big advantage.

On arriving to Courmayeur, the start and finish of TDG, I looked up at the steep mountains and felt a little concerned. I would have to wait till race day to find out if my limited training was enough.

Before the race I contacted other runners from Canada, the US and UK. There were almost 20 of us. We quickly became friends and looked forward to upcoming adventure. Beat and Chris were good trial running friends from the Bay area. Both Beat and I had talked each other into signing up for TDG and were planning to start the race together. Our North America group included Beat, Chris (now living in his home country of Switzerland again), Tamara, Michael, Bruce, Daniel, Angela, Doone, Glenn, Jen, Leslie, Nicki, Julia, Mark and a few more.

It had been an interesting past few days. Erin, who was to be my crew, got sick and I quickly made some backup plans in case she didn’t make it. I was most concerned about nutrition - I don’t eat meat so my crew would have extra vegetarian food for me so I wouldn’t go hungry. Gabi (who was living in Switzerland) kindly offered to help crew me for the first few days before she headed off on vacation, so I knew I would have some support for at the least the beginning.

Eventually I was ready. Erin recovered and was able to make it. Both Erin and Gabi arrived late the night before the race. The following morning I had breakfast and we headed to drop my bag off. We were each given a 40-litre duffle bag for our supplies. These bags would be transported between the seven life stations. All my essentials were in that bag and my crew had a backpack with more gear and a few bags of extra food. Food wise I was doing no sports nutrition - only real food along with instant mash potato, cereal bars, candy, salty snacks and stuff like that. I knew the life stations would have pasta and the refreshment stations would have bread and cheese. There were also meat options, but that wouldn’t help me. I also planned for Erin and Gabi to bring pizza for me.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Running in Circles - Across the Years 2011-2012.

During New Years when most people are out drinking and having fun, for my third time I decided to head down to Arizona and run “Across The Years” it’s 24, 48, or 72 hour footrace around a loop course.

Previous years its been a 500m track around Nardini Manor, this time the new location as the LA Dodger training ground, for some reason they train in Phoenix Arizona. This new course was a 1 mile loop that past a few baseball fields and a lake. It was mostly a gravel path and only had a few little bumps, that over time seemed to grow to hills.

I naturally signed up for the 72hr otherwise what would I do for the rest of the time. This time I was excited to see my old friend from 2007, Carrie Sauter, we became friends in 2007 when running round the 500m track until we got silly and laughed a lot.

In 2011 I moved from sunny California with ultra marathons every week and great trails to Vancouver, also with great trails, unless it was 2011 with so much snow it wasn’t until August until I could get on most the trails. And the trails in North Vancouver and West Vancouver are very technical, roots, rocks and slippery mud. Most my running was on roads and easy trails. That was at least good training for ATY, except I wasn’t running much since I had also started a Masters program that was eating up a lot of my running time.

My first mistake was as I had got slower with my lack of training, Carrie hadn’t but we still ran together for the first few hours, after a marathon legs were feeling heavy, not a good sign you are only a few hours into a 72hr race. I decided to take it easy and let Carrie continue to fly around the track. By 40 miles my legs were hurting and I had to take a break hoping that would fix my stupidly of going out way too fast. After a break my legs felt worse. I stayed positive, knowing it usually gets better, I found a pace that seemed to work and just kept going until I felt it was time for another break. I took a lot of breaks.

I wanted to hit 100 miles in the first 24hrs, that wasn’t going to happen, ok 90 miles, I kept adjusting my goal, at around 70 miles I could hardly moved, I had to take a long break, I laid down for about 3hrs, used my stick and massaged my legs and tried to sleep a little. Once I got up I was moving much better and eventually completed around 80 miles in the first 24hr, it was under my goal but still possible for my 72hr goal of 200 miles. I took another break and let the fresh legged day 2 runners start.

I got to run with Carrie again who was now many miles ahead of me and also run with the ever colorful Tammy Massie who was doing the 48hr followed but a day of volunteering.

I pushed on forward to 100 miles that took me almost 29 hours, that was a pretty slow 100 for a flat course. I was not done yet but I also knew I was going to slow down and its was probably going to be a tough race. And I was still waiting for things to get better, I pushed on my 100 mile lap, that was fun for a mile but I now I was paying for it with unhappy legs. At least my stomach was good, I was eating well and probably getting fat :)

My legs just didn’t want to move, I started trying all the tricks I knew, but I guess having a base of bad training doesn’t have an easy trick. At least I was moving. It was just so slow. I tried telling my legs to go faster. My walk and run speeds were almost the same, sometimes walking was faster. The second day was just a slog, but fished a little over 60 miles in my second day, now had to do almost the same in my last day, that didn’t give me much time to slow down. I had taken 2 long breaks during the night so maybe my legs would come back.

I decided to try something different, I never really listen to music while running outside because I like to talk to people or enjoy the sounds of nature, hear my surrounding. But my good friend Katelyn Benton singer/songwriter had sent me some of her new songs. I Katelyn is also an ultra runner and I thought if anyone can get me going it would be Katelyn. I got my iphone and made a little playlist of her 5 new songs, starting the “Hey you Rockstar”, that’s about struggling to follow you dreams. It was amazing, off I went like a Rocket, my speed almost doubled, then “Invisible Man” came on a few songs later, this is a more uptempo song of hers, my speed doubled again, I even past the lead runner, ok he was about 50 miles ahead of me, I actually I past almost every runner. I was flying. Thank you Katelyn. If you want to hear Katelyns music please check out her blog at or on Facebook at

I had was not at around 55 miles, and had be going for 51 hours, and had 13 hours to go 45 miles, I knew it was going to be tough but I wasn’t going to stop until I hit 200 miles or the time ran out, or my legs hurt, but my plan was to keep going as much as possible. Next planned break was at 200 miles and of course there would be a celebration break at midnight.

It was a nice day, my legs were feeling ok and I was still moving. I had music if I needed it but took a break from the music because I wanted to save it in case I really needed it later. The music gave me the runners high I was waiting for, it reminded me that anything is possible as long as you doing give up when it gets tough.

My paces gradually slowed down, but I was still moving ok, as it got closer to midnight my pace increased as I got more excited for the celebration, spending new years with my wonderful ultra running friends it very special. A little before midnight we stopped to pick up a glass of champagne, silly hat and noise maker. At midnight we all walked around the course drinking champagne, wearing silly hats, making noise and having fun. This is why I love ATY, its makes new years very memorable.

Standing around in the cold had led my legs to stiffen up and now I was doing a funny shuffle, but I was already at 188 miles so and had more than 8 hours to go 12 miles. Even with stiff legs I could do that… but there was a surprise in store for me. Each lap my legs became less stiff, the miles were counting down, less than 10 miles, at miles 193 I couldn’t hold back, I knew that feeling it was another runners high. endorphins had flooded my body, every muscle felt loose and fresh, I started to run, I dropped to a 9 min miles, it felt effortless, when before 15 min mile had felt like a sprint, I watched the miles pass. After 5 miles I eased up my pace a little, I wanted to save myself for an all out lap for my 200 mile lap. I walked a lap with my friend Kena Yutz, who had been having a really tough race. Then for my 200 mile lap, I went for it, it was fun ran a sub 8min mile and it felt great. I hit my goal. I could take my break, but I didn’t I kept going, walking now letting more miles past. My longest ATY was 204 miles, so I went to 205 miles then took a break. After an hour I got up for M&M pancakes, this is the best breakfast item after 3 days of running and walking. I saw Carrie and she talked me into doing a few more laps. Off we went and and did 4 laps. My total was 209.961 miles, I’ll call that 210 miles. Previously my longest foot race was 207 miles, so this was the my new PLR (Personal Longest Run)

It was an amazing experience, it was tough due to my lack of good training and running too fast with friends. But ATY is in my view one of the best ways to spend NYE.

The Coury family put on an amazing event, the food was great and I did actually gain weight on this run, probably all those cookies and other goodies I ate. Also a big thank you to all my friend who sent me messages and Katelyn for motivating me with her music.

Please check out Katelyn’s site or on Facebook at

I’m going to request her to record a special ultrarunning song since she’s doing a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for her next album.