by Kevin Skiles
So here I am, six thousand feet up on a French mountain beginning to hallucinate hard. The sun went down six hours ago while I was on a different mountain peak. That was the second sunset I had seen in this race and it was sixteen miles behind me, twenty kilometers behind me, six hours behind me, several thousand feet of climbing behind me –several thousand feet of climbing ahead and many miles/km to go. How do you measure time and distance when you have been moving over mountain terrain for over thirty hours and you are nowhere near the finish line?
There was only one way to rationally deal with the hallucinating. I bargained with myself. Out loud – much to the dismay of my French companion Quentin who I had been running with over the last several hours – allow 40% of my brain to go on a wild hallucinatory trip, while I demanded discipline and focus out of the remaining 60% of my brain. With that established, I put right in front of left, poles planted into the next rock step, steadying my swaying upper body and I pressed on toward Chamonix.
Why does someone embark upon a race like the UTMB? There are certainly easier 100 mile races. There are ultramarathons that do not require you to traverse steep alpine terrain that hardly qualifies as “trail running”. There are 100 mile races that can be done under 24 hours with relative ease. There are races that are on familiar trails and easily supported by friends and family – but there is something about the UTMB. Perhaps it is the history of the towns you run through like Chamonix, St. Gervais and Courmayeur –towns that are steeped in alpine glory. Perhaps it is the novelty of foreign adventure and crossing international borders during a race. Perhaps it is the challenge of the course itself. It took me several weeks after finishing and returning to the States to figure it out myself. What I will say is this – if you are drawn to this race, for whatever reason, and you are prepared to immerse yourself in it, it will not disappoint you. UTMB has the scenery, the pageantry, the challenge and one of the best finish lines in the sport.
During the week leading up to the race I re-read Homer’s classic Odyssey. I hadn’t read it since college and it seemed a fitting story to get me in the right frame of mind leading up to the race. We all know the story – Odysseus is challenged by monsters, gods, the elements to return home to his wife after fighting in the Trojan war. But he is also mentally and spiritually challenged several times during his journey. The core of the conflict is one of faith and determination to triumph over the physical challenges, but also the more difficult mental and spiritual challenges during the journey. With that inspiration, I embarked upon my Odyssey around Mt. Blanc.
Early in the race, just as we were beginning, a gentle rain began falling on us as we embarked from Chamonix. It was Friday evening and I was joined in this great adventure by several of my local Marin ultra-runners. We did our best to stay together during the early miles of the race. I was disappointed that our friend Charles wasn’t able to start as he got a virus that had knocked him out pretty good the morning of the race. My friend Jerome and I ran together for a few miles down to St. Gervais. He had already busted a hiking pole (mile 15) and was going to attend to his gear so I kept moving. I ran with Scott Mills, legendary ultrarunner, and director of one of my favorite races, the SD100, for a few miles through the mud and the rain. We shared a laugh about how miserable the trail conditions were and how “you don’t get this in San Diego”.
Erika and Tony, two of my training partners, came up on me as I was switching into dry clothes around mile 20 (it had thankfully stopped raining at this point). We trotted and hiked up the next hill just pressing forward without too much effort. Erika had a lot of pep in her step and put a gap on Tony and I as the hill got steeper. It is difficult for Bay Area runners to understand how steep and long the hills are in the alps – Training for this run I used Willow Camp and Mt. Tam and they just aren’t even close. Nevertheless, I was feeling pretty confident as I stayed inside myself and just hiked up at a comfortable pace.
As the night went on and the hills continued their rhythm of long steep ups followed by long steep downs, my friend Tony began to slow considerably. I absolutely wasn’t going to leave him until the sunrise as I thought his energy might rebound once dawn broke and I was also worried about the safety of him being alone in the high country at night. Neither of us speaks French and UTMB is a race that assumes a level of self-reliance that we don’t see in the States much. He indicated he wanted to crawl up against a rock and sleep at one point which is a warning sign of several alpine ailments I didn’t even want to think about. The two of us shuffled into Italy right before dawn and Tony found a comfortable cot in an aid station where he could rest until dawn when hopefully he could resume his race and finish. The race has a very generous cut off time if you can keep moving. This allows for several strategies and I ran with a lot of Europeans who were taking naps for one to two hours and then waking up and hammering – that would take some getting used to I think.
Now on my own, I settled into a solid pace hiking the ups, running the flats and downs and managing some foot pain that was beginning due to having wet socks all night. Entering Courmayeur marked the roughly half way point and I had a change of clothes, socks and some hot food waiting for me – a great opportunity to reset and recharge. I probably took too much time at the aid station, but I really wanted to reset the race and feel “fresh” when I left. Without having crew to push me through the aid stations, I tended to dawdle a little in a bit of a mental fog. Courmayeur is a very beautiful city and I was bummed to be in and out of there without being able to linger and soak in the historical buildings, great restaurants, the incredible alpine scenery and the friendly people. I was enjoying the Italian spectators- ultrarunning is a huge deal in Europe. The race course was line with cheering fans almost the entire way. Each time we descended into a city, there was music, crowds and tons of energy. At Refuge Bertoni, in Italy, an attractive young lady blew me a kiss, cooed “Hay Guapo Kevin” and then slapped me on the butt. You don’t get that in America!
As the morning went on, I entered the part of the course I was planning on “attacking”. The climb out of Courmayeur is very steep, but I leaned into it and knew I could get it over in an hour if I pressed. The ten miles between the top of this climb and the base of the next climb was absolutely enjoyable running. Stunning Italian alps scenery, well groomed single track trail, good company with Bill from Sacto and Run Bum from Georgia. The aid stations during this part of the course are historic mountain refuges that serve day hikers, thru hikers and today – UTMBers. While it sounds bizarre, I was really looking forward to the 3500 ft. Gran Col Ferret climb as I knew it would put me “well over halfway” and also de-mystify the serious climbs of this race. Basically, I knew if I could hike that climb strong, nothing was going to stop me. I passed people the entire way up the climb, enjoyed the incredible views down the valley toward Courmayeur and entered Switzerland with purpose in my running and 16 miles of downhill in front of me.
Several miles into my descent from Gran Col Ferret I couldn’t help but start pining for an uphill. The quads just needed a break. Shortly after the La Fouly aid station (where I was briefly heartbroken to see Erika and her boyfriend Karl drop from the race – I was sure they were still several hours ahead of me – they made the right call for physical/medical reasons, bit I was disappointed as I knew they were too) I got my wish – uphill. This was the beginning of my “bending the map” style hallucinations that would haunt me the rest of the race. Running in a foreign country can be bewildering and I am certainly guilty of occasionally being over-confident in my memory of maps. I thought I was further than I was and that I had already climbed up the hill to Champex-Lac and I started getting frustrated that I wasn’t seeing a lake when I was in fact three miles away from the hill to Champex- Lac. When I got to the ACTUAL trail head to the lake, I figured the sign was wrong and that my mental “map” was right. I had been up for 36 hours at this point, so I should be excused a little here. As I started up the switchbacks (that didn’t fit my mental “map”) I started cussing and getting down. There is no point in this when you are ultra-running, but it happens. Finally I got to the Champex-Lac aid station and I decided to get rid of my attitude, start drinking copious amounts of coke, and get some solid food calories down – they offered a full legit pasta and meat dinner at this station –very cool. After thirty minutes, I left the aid station with a full belly and feeling good with all of the negative demons left at the aid station.
There is a real nice downhill out of Champex-Lac until the next climb and I used the remaining daylight to put a good pace down. With the sun about to set, I was entering unchartered territory. A second night of running. Naively, I thought I may only be six to seven hours away from finishing – that sounded pretty reasonable. Ha Ha, the mountains would have other plans.
At this point in the race, having run eighty miles in twenty-five hours, the remaining twenty five miles consists of three large climbs and three down hills, each steeper and longer than the last. The last climb was supposed to be significantly more difficult than the first two but there is really no way to understand it until you do it. The first climb took a couple hours, there were some hairy white water crossings, but there was still some daylight, and at the top of the mountain there was a herd of cows waiting for me. Cows always have a very positive effect on me because they move in such a deliberate, patient way – it is a good reminder during an ultra. Their deep bells toned back and forth. I was with a pack of French runners we have grouped together figuring it would be safe to run in a group as it was turning dark. One of the runners, Quentin, spoke some English and he and I more or less agreed to keep running together as far as we could do it.
We descended into Trient and it was significantly steeper than I expected. My quads were thrashed at this point. I was reduced to jacking Alleve, mainlining coke and eating crackers. That would be it for the rest of the night. A simple repetitive formula of pain, progress, alleve, coke, crackers……… and repeat.
Quentin and I decided to head back up the hill without the rest of the group. Aid stations in the second half of a 100 can resemble the “land of the lotus eaters” and can trap you with inertia if you don’t’ stay focused on moving and I was itching to go. This middle climb of the last three went quicker, or seemed to, and I was feeling alright. There was a cool group of people at the top of the mountain with a nice warm fire and we stopped for a few minutes to chat. The descent into Vallorcine was endless, and at this point, my brain started wandering into the spirit world…… I would be crossing the river Styx…..bargaining with Hades…and hopefully returning to the light……
While at the aid station in Vallorcine, I convinced Quentin that we should keep pressing on and finish this race before dawn breaks. Quentin is a much faster runner than me and the only reason he was near me toward the end of the race is because he was taking naps at some of the aid stations, I knew this close to the end – it would be better just to finish and not extend our breaks.
We trudged out of Vallorcine and the early part of the final climb was not too bad. Just keep putting left in front of right. After a couple miles of running/shuffling past nice vacation homes, a river and quaint euro style ski resort infrastructure, the course takes a hard left and heads straight up the mountain. It got so steep immediately the trail felt less like single track and more like a bouldering course. Seriously, over two thousand feet and almost two miles of bouldering –that is what the final climb is. The hallucinations started immediately. At first it was the alien face with almond eyes we have all seen a million times – he was popping up every time the moonlight hit a rock. Then it started getting good. Every time my eyes rested on an individual rock face for more than an instant, I would see the face of either Dora the Explorer, Hitler, Lyle Lovett, the Alien, Abe Linclon or Che Guevera. weird…… I let this go on for about twenty minutes and then the comic strip started. The comic strip. The trail became an Archie comic strip. I was walking on a comic strip and it was moving, sometimes fast sometimes slow. One thing it was NOT doing was helping me move forward. Several time during the climb I called out to Quentin “Hey, I see a hut with some lights right up ahead”. The first few times, he probably believed me and got excited that we are at the top, I imagine he quickly got annoyed after that.
Then came the goats. “Hey Quentin, watch out for the goats. I am sure they’ll move if you whistle at them”……… there were no goats. Quentin could not get away from me fast enough……
In the fable, Odysseus ordered his men to tie him to the mast as he shrieked orders to steer the boats toward the beautiful voices of the sirens (and the rocks that would smash the boats), I had no men, no rope and no mast – so I came up with my own plan to deal with this nonsense. First, I resigned myself that I would not be finishing this race until dawn broke again. Second, I allowed part of my brain to indulge these wild hallucinatory adventures. 40% hallucinations / 60% forward progress would be the formula until daylight.
“Hey I don’t think we are on the right trail”. That became my mantra for about twenty minutes. I think we went around the mountain the wrong way once, but I could certainly be mis-remembering. UTMB marks the trail VERY well. But it was very foggy, it was my second night in a row of all night hiking/running and it took everything I had just to pick my way through the rock garden descending to La Flegure. It is kind of crazy how long it took (1.25 hrs) to go 2 miles downhill -but that is the deal with this course in the dark.
Once we got to La Flegure, Quentin decided to take a quick nap (and was probably relieved to be rid of his hallucinating American companion who kept shouting out bizarre stuff to him) , I pressed on wanting to get off the mountain ASAP. I had run this last six miles with my wife Milly earlier in the week and I figured it was an hour until I’d be finished. Dawn broke for the second time during the race about halfway down the mountain. The hallucinations stopped as soon as the first light of the new day show on the alps. The light was orange, purple and yellow all at the same time (not a hallucination!) It is amazing the mental and spiritual lift the new day brings. La Floria, the little café that straddles the trail, where Milly and I had enjoyed a glass of wine at a few days before, appeared and I knew I was less than 3 miles from the finish. Big boost!
The last mile of the course winds through Chamonix and shopkeepers were just starting to open, families of runners were anxiously gathering around the sides of the race course and all of the sudden I saw my wife Milly, my friends Charles, Tony and Christina and I felt as light as when I started the race. FINISH. All right all right. Finish. That’s what it is all about. A complete circumnavigation of the Mt. Blanc Massive. Three countries, countless miles, passes and small towns / refuges. Thirty-Seven and a half hours to cover 105 + miles. Pretty staggering stuff……. Experience of a lifetime.
I was totally thrilled to see my new friend Erik Skaden, who I had been hanging out with the days before the race, had finished about an hour before me with Scott Mills. I was bummed Tony, Erika and Karl hadn’t finished, but they had each put up a valiant effort. Later in the morning Jerome, John, and Bradley from our group would finish. Crossing the finish, I was washed over with feelings of euphoria, exhaustion and also a focused clarity. UTMB was a total challenge – physical, mental and spiritual – and the rewards were more than equal to the challenge in every way. I come back to the central question – why do I or anyone run UTMB? Because it is an epic adventure that will leave a permanent impression on you. At the end of the fable, Odysseus is recognized by his housekeeper by scars that he had from a boyhood adventure. These scars were unique and told a story – his story. UTMB leaves a deep impression on everyone who participates in much the same way.