Last spring I took a packrafting safety and rescue course. We learned that as a swimmer in distress (aka pre-drowning-victim) you must have agency to be saved. It is not enough that an expert lifeline is thrown. YOU MUST REACH. And grab. And hold. And keep swimming. Your participation in your rescue is not optional.
At UTMB last week a lifeline appeared right at the time I needed it, but I had already decided that drowning was inevitable. I walked away.
This is that story.
Chamonix, late August: Terrified
When friends asked me how I felt in the days and hours before the start of the 170KM UTMB race, my standard response was “terrified”. The magnitude of the trails, the potential wet weather, and my injured achilles tendon had seriously fucked with my mojo (not to mention two hard 100s already in 2019, and some challenging interpersonal drama). Other months I might have been able to reframe my story, to tell myself, “I have no expectations other than enjoying the spectacle.” Alas, that was not my mindset, and mindset is everything.
[Part One of the UTMB story: Two weeks before UTMB, I “janked” my achilles on a boring pavement jog.]
Prior to the achilles thing, UTMB was supposed to be a “frosting race” to cap the summer. A time to use my training experience to get through the course without stress or hurry. I set modest goals: first a finish and second a decent time, perhaps approaching 40 hours. After the injury, the first goal shifted: no serious injury that would put me out for months or more. The other goals? Demoted to meaninglessness. Honestly, I fully expected the achilles pain to announce itself early and loudly and I’d last maybe 20 or 30 kilometers before hanging it up, smartly and with no “didn’t tough it out” regrets. The worst case scenario was frightening: pushing through pain only to rupture the damn thing on a remote mountain pass.
Chamonix, 3 p.m. Sunday September 1st
If you’d asked me 24 hours ago what I would be doing at 3 p.m. on Sunday in Chamonix, I would have assumed jogging through the streets of Chamonix-Mt-Blanc with new friends and a ton of grit (literal and figurative). We’d all be exhausted, jubilant, relieved, and overwhelmed by the noise of the crowd and the sight of the UTMB finishing arch. As it turned out, my friends were indeed doing their celebratory final steps after 45 hours on the trail. I was within earshot of the clamor blocks away, in a haze of processing and self-pity.
Fifteen hours earlier, under the dark cover of night with 50 kilometers remaining, I chose to quit the UTMB. At the 125km Champex Lac checkpoint, I walked up to the table that said “Abandonment” and let a woman cut the barcode from my race number. I lied to myself and to the race official, asserting that I “would not complete the race”. For me, there would be no more checkpoints, no more stretches on off-kilter trails strewn with runners sleeping on rocks, no more procession of lights ahead and behind me as far as I could see. There would be no more pain in my groin on nearly every step, no more nauseatingly soupy mud-fests that used to be trail, no more soggy pack, no more force-fed energy gels, no more gut pain with every stride.
Earlier in the evening my stomach had gone way off on a fast and technical downhill to try to outrun a storm (didn’t work). The daggers in my gut only magnified the conviction that I was not fit to continue. That I was at risk of serious injury. That I was not prepared for this endeavor, not this time. It all seemed so inevitable.
UTMB Start, August 30, 6pm: Quadkilla?
During the race, I carried no painkillers. I needed to FEEL what was happening in there. This meant that early on, the achilles was indeed unhappy. Tight, a bit sore, and certainly giving me warning signals that I was noting and then ignoring. For now. I keep popping my hippie anti-inflammatories (fish oil and turmeric – brilliant, FYI) and plodding up the conga line climbs into the first night. I have never had so many people behind me in an ultra before. I have never had this many people ahead of me in an ultra before. Amusing and amazing.
Here’s how UTMB goes: the average angle of climb or descent is right around 12%, similar to Hardrock Hundred. However, the flattish miles at UTMB account for a higher percentage of the course, which means the ups and downs are far steeper. And hoo boy, my quads were announcing loudly their disdain for the extreme angles and bumpy trail. This is when I need to call on my extensive experience to remind myself that this happens. This is OKAY. The quads might seem like they’re going to implode at 50K, but they will not if the calories keep flowing.
Achilles Yay, Iliopsoas Nay!
Despite the quad complaints, the evening and first night and day had been going relatively well, considering my fear around the achilles. I got through 20K, then 40K, then beyond 50K with no progression of the pain, possibly no threat of further injury. Très bien! And holy cannoli, the sunrise on the Italian border pass just made my entire year. On that pass I decided that I must come back to this amazing place, over and over, year after year. But after every blissfully grinding climb at UTMB there must also be a descent into hell.
Around 60K, the downhill & flat running combo awoke my iliopsoas—an on-and-off injury for more than 2 years. Was this another warning from my body to stop to prevent real damage? Every single bumpy down on this course was followed by flat running and a fair bit of cursing.
Here’s the weird thing with injuries and pains and things that go bump in one’s body in the nighttime of ultras: they might not be anything at all. Or they could be THE THING that puts you in cross training rehab hell for a year, or more. My brother nursed a deep groin injury for over 5 years before hanging up ultrarunning for an actual life. That shit gets me paranoid. Luck probably plays a part in how it turns out, but knowing one’s own body helps immensely.
Through Courmayeur after a rooty downhill trail that would make HURT 100 proud, I changed into lighter clothes and got a burst of new enthusiasm for our next climb. Before leaving, I saw a runner with a mug that said, “WTF” and commented on it. He replied, “it’s not what you think…” and I chuckled. This is Paul from Ireland. I’d be seeing a bit of him over the next 12 hours.
I relish climbs. I grind, I pass people, I get it done. Usually in ultras I am asking, “when could I have another climb, please???” Which is why I’m drawn to stuff with big power climbs like UTMB. We ascended to an airy pass at a ski resort and then down to the next checkpoint with a fabulous shaded lawn for a 10 minute nap.
Mentally, I was all over the place. Up then down, ebbing and flowing with my muscles and heat load. Next, our highest point at Col Ferret. On the ascent a storm rolled in providing welcome shade, but I knew we might get nailed. Sure enough, the fat drops came and the lightning-thunder gap was down to 3 seconds. I was ready to GTFO this mountain. When the 10 kilometer descent was described as relatively runnable, I was prepared to suffer the quads down to La Fouly to avoid as much of the slop and lightning as I could.
Through a rainstorm that sent rocks down, blocking several roads, I ran HARD down the mountain into La Fouly, Switzerland. The trail, once we reached the woods, was absolute wreckage. Soft squishy pudding mud while it was still downpouring. The trail was the stream. The stream was the trail. I managed to not slide/slip/fall and coat myself in the muddle. But through all that running and desire to just get to the next checkpoint, BOOM went my gut.
[Side note: I don’t get stomach issues. I’ve been extremely lucky this way. I don’t get nauseous, I don’t puke, I have low appetite but can usually put food in. So this gut thing on the La Fouly descent was unfortunately unexpected and overwhelming to my (then) fragile mental state. Jason Koop writes with amazing insight about UTMB when he describes a likely DNF as a person with multiple issues that they are trying to address or think about all at once. One issue? You’re fine and nearly all runners will plod through with one issue. But two? Three? Odds of DNF start skyrocketing. ]
Even with my now multiple issues, I got through La Fouly and started on the next section, a “rolling” 7 kilometers to Champex Lac. Along the way (frankly, as I sat on a bridge still in La Fouly hating life) I met up yet again with Paul who tugged me along with another friend through my whines and (silent) desire to stop. Running sucked. Walking sucked. Sitting down compressed the stomach and sucked, too. After a bit, I let my pity grow enough to let Paul & co get ahead of me. Now I was alone in the dark, with another runner or two or three coming by with regularity. This was demoralizing. This was mortifying. To stop UTMB seemed both perfectly logical and yet oh so dumb.
And the fun continued to Champex Lac with multiple stops for no good reason at all. Being upright in any configuration hurt. But, I had nearly 2 hours on the cutoff so I planned to lie down and sleep for at least a half hour at Champex to reboot the gut. I joined the morgue of sleepers on picnic benches and conked out. My alarm went off and I swung upright and the gut rebelled. Gawd. Damn. It. So this was it. I was done. 14 more hours of gut pain? No. Nononononono. That was my brain. That was all I could think. Fourteen more hours. Fourteen more hours. Fourteenmorehours.
Just then I found Paul again. He was about to leave. I said I was giving the stomach one more try with some rice. I didn’t tell him I planned to stop. He said, “Do you want me to wait for you?” I immediately responded, “NO.” I hope I also mumbled something nice about not wanting to take up more of his time, but my memory is shit. And that was that.
No Regrets = No Growth
As it turned out, I did in fact meet my first goal—to not render permanent injury. But a massive shitstorm of second-guessing and regret came almost immediately after the bar code was cut from my bib. (Maybe I could reattach it and undo??? Maybe…??) Much of the doubt came from suspecting that I could have still had my non-injury goal while still finishing, even if slower than planned. Had I said yes to Paul, there’s a damn good chance I would have finished. Simple as that. Sometimes it’s a door you walk through, and sometimes it’s a door you close.
Getting on the bus back to Chamonix with several other DNFs, the doubt was immediate. I could walk. I could keep going. Others seemed worse off. Why in the hell did I stop? I didn’t “deserve” to stop! One guy across from me was in his own world of funk, the UTMB running figure logo tattooed on his thigh. I looked at him, wondered what he was going through. If he couldn’t continue, or if he regretted already, too.
Regret is a tricky emotion. It MUST be funneled into positive action and mindset otherwise it will ruin you.
And this is why we process. When I take my experience running 75 miles through the Alps and really think about what I saw, what I felt, and the enormity of the event, I’ve got to believe that there’s little to regret. I came away with at least two new long-term friends (yes, Paul is one), and boy do I ever know what it takes to finish this course well for the next time I’m here. Of course there’s a next time.
Life has no guarantees. I might not get selected in the draw for 2020. This is how the game works. I am repeatedly reminded that I can choose better actions after making a questionable decision, but I might not get the chance again. I hope to keep choosing better before my time runs out. I’ve been running ultras for more than 20 years, and still I learn. Every single time, I learn.
“it takes a hard-won maturity to experience the depths of regret in ways that do not overwhelm and debilitate us but put us into a proper, more generous relationship with the future” – David Whyte
The After After: Advice
Take the lifeline. When the rope is thrown, no matter how much you think you can’t swim, paddle anyway and grab on.
Paul offered me a chance, though neither of us thought it significant in the moment. He didn't know I was literally about to go get my number cut off, and I didn't want to mess up his race if he waited too long for me. My stubbornness rejected it even before my head and heart could give it the consideration it deserved. Other runners had different lifelines that they were able to use. It might be an expectant crew. It could be kind words from a volunteer. Sunrise. Coffee. A nap. Paul’s was a photo of a friend now passed. In a race this long, we all need some kind of lifeline, however small. We have to bring them with us, or find them in the moments of doubt.