Wow! It’s hard to know where to start! Emotions are still all over the place at this moment just trying to take in the whole experience. It’s not a race you sign up for and decide to just run it. UTMB is the largest ultra running stage in the world, and there’s just nothing like this one!
My journey to the starting line began more than 3 years ago when I earned my very first UTMB points in the 2015 Georgia Death Race 100k. With the growing popularity of UTMB, qualifying for the lottery has become more and more difficult. I don’t want to explain the whole lottery process, but when your name is drawn, it feels like getting the winning Lotto ticket or a payout in Vegas! It feels like you’ve made it, but it’s just the beginning of a very long road. After eight months of training you hope to show up at the starting line in Chamonix, France. But who really dreams of running in France, in one of the largest and most difficult running events in the world? Aren’t those just the dreams of the elites and top runners? Seriously!
My friend, Stephanie, and I met at that very first Death Race and we both dared to dream big! We put our names in the UTMB lottery for the first time in 2016 as a team. Under their new team rules, if one got in, we both got in! We were selected into the race in the second year of entering the lottery!
We planned our trip, trained hard, and went over to Chamonix, France 6 days before our race. UTMB isn’t just one race. There are 5 different races and distances throughout the week, all leading up to the crown jewel, the 106 mile race! Each race starts at a different town and ends in Chamonix. We spent the week watching the crowds grow and seeing runners from the other races cross the finish line. The excitement for UTMB was off the charts!
Our race started on Friday evening at 6pm. We tried to spend the day relaxing as much as possible. Then just 4 hours before the start of the race, we got the alert that the weather had changed and the cold gear kit was required! This was one of my biggest fears because I do not like the cold. We were already carrying so much required gear, so the thought of carrying even more was not what we wanted to hear. Not only was the temperature expected to drop significantly, it started to rain as we headed to the starting line. We were determined not to let it dampen our spirits. My friend, Soon (who we had been hanging out with a lot during the week), Stephanie, and I put on our rain ponchos, headed down to the start with our crew and lined up with more than 2500 other runners!
Soon, Me and Stephanie at the start
The huge crowds began to clap, runners waved flags from their countries, and we watched it all on the big screen next to us as the announcer hyped up the crowds and runners. The elites were introduced as they each came to the starting line. The noise from the crowds and the excitement grew deafening. Then just moments before 6 pm they began playing the song, Conquest of Paradise, and the feeling was indescribable! I don’t think I’ll ever forget that powerful moment. It all became so real, and just as the song ended, the race of a lifetime had started. Our journey had begun.
Running through the crowded street of Chamonix
The race starts with crowds so thick you can’t move, and the streets were lined with people throughout the town for miles as we began running. You knew this was going to be like nothing else you had ever experienced. Stephanie and I grabbed on to one another, holding hands as we crossed the starting line and trying not to lose each other in the crowd of runners. The first 10k is flat and easy, but after that teasing terrain, things got seriously real! The very first climb was like nothing I had experienced – rain, mud, and miles of climbing up a boulder field! It felt like it took hours to get up the first climb. We had trained hard and been given lots of wisdom and advice. One of the biggest pieces of advice seemed to be KFM, or “keep f@#$ moving”! My breathing was so labored and my heart rate was through the roof. I couldn’t imagine how this thing I had gotten myself into would play out. Moving through the first 19 miles to our first crew spot at Les Contemines, we were certain we would miss the cutoffs. Stephanie and I chatted as we headed into that aid station and felt certain our journey was over. At only 19 miles in we were both ready to bow down to Mont Blanc and be grateful for the journey we had. I know it sounds a little dramatic, but I promise you have no idea, this thing is for real.
Headed back out after the first crew stop
We got into the very busy aid station and anxiously searched for our crew! Our crew was Rob Apple (who had 10 years of UTMB knowledge and experience at all their races) and John & Rebecca Storey (friends of Stephanie’s and now mine, from Knoxville, TN). Rob told us we were doing great, we had time, and they quickly helped us get into dry clothes for the next section. It would be 30 miles and the next afternoon before we would see them again in Courmayeur. We had our first taste of reality and it was time to get to work. No time for a pity party, we needed to KFM. That was pretty much how the first part of the race went for us. I knew cutoffs were tight up front and we seemed to stay just ahead of them for the next 30 miles before we seemed to put a little time in the bank.
My breathing was labored and my heart rate elevated with each climb. Stephanie seemed to do better on the climbs and helped pull me along. Downhill and more technical sections seemed to be my strength, so we helped each other. We were in it together, but we knew anything could happen. And it would.
We felt discouraged at our pace, but each time we saw our crew they would reassure us we were doing great! Rebecca would always tell us we were awesome, and though I don’t think we believed it, we simply had no other option but to accept it and KFM! We were merely in survival mode each time we came into an aid station. Disappointed we had barely beaten cutoffs once again. Often we felt drained with nothing left to keep fighting.
Coming out of Courmayeur (mile 50ish) and now well into day two, we thought the weather would be nice, with the worst of the bad weather behind us. Our crew encouraged us to switch to shorts and a short sleeve shirt but we both opted not to. That would prove to be a decision that saved the rest of our race. Rob told us the next climb was the worst. We later realized he lied to us a lot! Good crew sometimes have to tell a few lies. Some tell more than others!
You couldn’t really talk to people around you on the trail. You usually had your head down, were in survival mode, and didn’t dare look up. You also could not speak to them because you had no idea what language they spoke. There was always a bond though. Heavy breathing, gasps, and deep groaning that everyone understood. Everyone was going through a struggle that transcended language.
When we got to the top of that big climb and started out of that aid station, the volunteers stopped us and made us put on our required sealed rain jackets. They had warned that the weather was going to be cold where we were headed. A couple aid stations later, at Arnouvaz, they would make us put on our required sealed rain pants. We were not far ahead of cutoffs but looked around to see that many of the runners were calling it quits here at Arnouvaz, 58 miles into the race. We were determined not to quit but knew there was a good chance it might beat us before we could finish. We now had 10 miles or so to the next cutoff point and about 4 hours to get there. That normally wouldn’t seem so bad, but this is UTMB! As soon as we were on the trail we could see this huge overwhelming climb before us. With all the people we had just seen give up at the aid station, it now seemed like that might have been a good way to end this thing. It also seemed like more runners were coming down after starting the climb than going up. One thing you get good at is keeping your head down, putting one foot in front of the other, and KFM. We would later agree that the climb up Grand Col Ferrett was the worst climb of the race, but I think that was because it was mentally the toughest. The weather was rough; heading into the night again, rainy, windy, foggy and cold! We were into our second night of the race and were still barely surviving cutoffs. Nothing was getting easier, only harder and steeper! It felt like hours later when we did finally make it to the top. My hands were frozen and cold, it was windy, and I was completely exhausted and defeated. I was also feeling like I was on the verge of being hypothermic. We had two more check points to get through before La Fouly, and still a long ways to see our crew again at Champex-Lac.
I had also strained my groin coming up that climb. A warm shower and bed were all I could wrap my mind around at that moment. In the meantime, it was survival mode and I balled up my hands inside my gloves so I could warm them up and feel my fingers again. We were now on some of the better downhill sections of the course, but it was still cold, wet, foggy, rainy and night time. We knew we had managed to stay ahead of cutoffs, but it was definitely the lowest point of the race for me. I knew my groin was at least strained, and that doesn’t sound fun for 40 more miles of tough climbs. We were not far from the La Fouly aid station when we came across a few young women (we were now in Switzerland). The crowds all along the course were yelling and cheering “allez allez allez” or “bravo” but these young ladies looked at my bib and hollered out “Stay Strong, Make America Proud”! Dang it, why did they have to say that? I had almost made up my mind that with my injury and the weather, I was dropping. Now I have to “Make America proud”?
We got to the La Fouly aid station, 67 miles complete and ahead of cutoffs by about 30 minutes or so. Then the minute I crossed the timing mat and came into the aid station tent a large screen cued up and played the first of two videos of encouragement my friends had made for me! The first was from my MARC group (Metro Atlanta Running Club) and then another from GUTS (Georgia Ultra Trail Running Society)!
This is the MARC Video with Cherie
I literally stood still right in the middle of the aid station and cried. In the first video, I saw my friend Cherie. Shortly before I got into UTMB, Cherie was diagnosed with cancer. She would have surgery and undergo 6 months of chemo treatments while I trained for UTMB! I dedicated my 2018 year of running and my UTMB race to her. She has never given up, and the moment I saw her on the screen I knew I wasn’t giving up. Mont Blanc and I would fight this out to the end. Somehow, some way. I had no idea how, but I was going forward. I was going to make all the people cheering for me and my family who made sacrifices for me to be here proud! I would know that I dug deep and gave it all I had.
Once in my life I had to quit something. I was in middle school and came from a broken home. Back then, no one came from a broken home. I was shy and struggled to belong but eventually found a place where I fit in when I made the basketball team. I mostly sat the bench but that sense of belonging meant everything to me. Then my mother made me quit the team when one of my grades slipped below a C average (the coach’s history class nonetheless). That was the worst feeling in my life. I swore I would never quit anything again. I often wonder if that was the defining moment in my life and from where I draw strength.
We now had some downhill and uphill getting to Champex-Lac. There’s always more uphill! We again got to our crew and knew we had survived to fight some more. During that section it had been Stephanie’s turn to hit a low point. She was tired and hungry but we knew we had to keep going. Just KFM! Keep your feet moving! The next climb was rough for her and she began throwing up. We didn’t dare talk about it, but we both knew this could end things for her. When we finally got into Champex-Lac, mile 76 or so, Stephanie said she had to lay down. We didn’t have time to stay long but Steph needed to recover. Here the crew had more access to the aid station supplies (later in the race they were more relaxed) and allowed both of us to sit and take care of small things. Our crew waited on us bringing food, drinks and refilling our packs. We still had 30 miles to go with a number of mountains to climb. Extreme fatigue and mental exhaustion had swallowed us up. We could only focus on the next little section. Rob would continue to tell us the hardest climbs were behind us. Maybe looking at a chart it looks easier in the second half of the race, but after so many miles and so much time each step is more and more difficult.
Hydration was never a problem for either of us. We drank well and it wasn’t really warm until the final afternoon so we both stay well hydrated. Eating became a little tougher. I personally loved the aid station foods; cheeses, meats, crackers, soups, and Coke, which was usually nice and cold, just how I like it. The difficult part was we had to constantly stay moving. We knew we could not relax and sit at the aid station. We had been given lots of advice not to spend too much time at the aid stations. It was amazing how many people did just sit or sleep at the aid stations, or just didn’t seem in any hurry to leave. The problem with grabbing food and eating on the go was that we had gloves on and poles in our hands all the time. We couldn’t put our poles away because immediately out of most every aid station was a steep climb. You also couldn’t really eat and climb. When you would eventually get to a place that leveled out some, you still were using gloves and poles, and it was such a hassle to get anything out of your pack. Even stopping to put on or take off a jacket was a huge ordeal and we just couldn’t afford the time.
Stephanie’s stomach started to rebound, but she was so exhausted. It was very early in the morning on our second day and we were again finishing a very long, steep, unending climb. Climbing felt more like a pilgrimage than a large conga line at times as we literally journeyed over mountains from one town to the next with the same group of people. We knew them all by sight and each one was desperately trying to get to the same place.
We got to the next aid station, a rustic Refuge at La Giete, just before the sun came up. It was small and people were sleeping everywhere. There was no real aid, just water and coffee. Stephanie laid down on the hard wooden floor and covered up with an emergency space blanket. I gave her 10 minutes to sleep as I anxiously watched the clock. We had another 5k to get to our crew at Trient. Luckily it was a downhill section, although even these downhills were not very runnable. I wanted to give Steph a chance to sleep but not too long. I got out her weather pants and warm jacket from her pack. I was getting cold myself just sitting and trying to sip on very lukewarm coffee. This was not the cappuccino I’d enjoyed in Chamonix the days before the race. I put my warm layers on as well, made Stephanie a cup of coffee and got her up. She put on her layers and we were soon on our way. Steph had rebounded some more and we were desperately trying to put some time in the bank on this next downhill stretch.
Bam, we had made it to Trient, around mile 86. Our crew again gave us food and refilled our packs with water as we briefly sat down. Rob gave us our update of what was ahead. The worst climbs were over he said again. Again, all lies! He also told us if we could get through the next section, around 8-9 miles, we would have no more cutoffs. They would let us finish. We were so exhausted and stressed from chasing cutoffs but felt sure we could make it now. The climb from Trient turned out to be one of the steepest climbs we had done. It was now daylight and warmer. We had finally changed into shorts and taken off our jackets. Eventually we got over the top of the mountain and started down a good downhill section on our way to Vallorcine and what we thought to be the last cutoff to stress over.
The first thing Rebecca said to us when we saw her coming into Vallorcine at mile 93 was that Rob was mistaken. There was another cutoff. We were no longer surprised, but we were determined with only the last 13 miles ahead of us. We might have welcomed missing a cutoff earlier, but now we were too close and had come too far. We were now on a mission to get to the next check point with more time in the bank as we headed into the final climb. The last climb turned into a climb, then downhill, then another long climb. The worst part would be the most technical boulder and root-filled downhill you could imagine. There was simply no way for any of the runners to move fast. Our goal was now set on la Flegere, the final Refuge and aid station, as well as the final cutoff. Rob had told us if we missed the cutoff they would still let us finish but we were not letting that enter our thinking. We were making it and not missing a cutoff. We came out of the woods from our long climb and could see the la Flegere Refuge way above us and a long steep trail of runners leading the way up to it. We could make it!
We can see la Flegere
We entered the aid station with around 25 minutes to spare and went right through and kept moving. Only 8k to Chamonix and the finish line was waiting for us below. We both shed a tear of relief seeing Chamonix below, but knew it was too premature to celebrate just yet. It was the longest 8k – too technical to run at times but we continued to run when we could and just kept moving. KFM – we knew it too well. We knew the clock was ticking and we knew we were finishing but we were determined not to finish over the cutoff time. After a very long downhill we finally dropped out of the woods and onto the trails on the outskirts of town with huge, excited crowds everywhere.
Just a couple of these to climb over on the way to the finish, which I might add that Rob told us we wouldn’t have to do. Liar Liar
It was hard to hold our emotions together. We fast hiked as quickly as possible on our hurting feet and broken bodies, but our spirits soared as the crowds cheered for us. We crossed over two sets of stair cases to make our way into the heart of Chamonix on the small crowd-lined cobblestone streets. The crowds thickened, then we came to the final turn where we could see the finish. The roars from the crowd were deafening as the sounds of their hands slapped the sponsor banners. We tried to savor the moment we knew we would never experience again. The entire crowd was celebrating with us! We grabbed hands to finish the race, just as we had started. The French announcer called our names, “Trena and Stephanie! From the United States of America! From the US of A! Welcome home girls! Yes you did, you did it, you completed the UTMB! The most difficult race in the world! Well done Stephanie! Well done Trena!”
Mont Blanc is a majestic mountain to respect! One that humbles you, breaks you and forever changes you!