Kilometre 141: I am in the medical tent watching my dream of finishing the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc slip away by the minute. I worked so hard to create a three hour buffer within the cut-off time to ensure I would finish without chasing any final cut-offs. Instead the aid station at Trient became more familiar than it should ever have as my blood pressure continued to drop every time I tried to sit up.
Getting to the start of UTMB required three years of dreaming, training, qualifying, being drawn for an entry, training some more and raising funds through the phenomenal support I received from family and friends. That was the hard part done, now all I needed to do was enjoy the race. Having never run further than 100km or completed more than 6000m cumulative ascent, 170km with 10 000m ascent loomed with both challenges and doubt, yet commanded a determination that only death could deter. For a number of reasons I had to finish, even if it meant crawling my way across that finish line.
Heading out of Chamonix at 6pm on Friday 26 August 2016, the first few kilometres of the race were met with an overwhelming number of supporters, ringing cow bells and some much unexpected climbing. Having looked at the race profile and seen nothing but a completely flat line for the first 8km, the substantially undulating terrain took me by complete surprise. I quickly realised that those long, steep climbs later in the profile were going to require far more grit than I had thought.
A race that begins with 2555 runners from 87 different nationalities is unique in many ways. For the first few hours I hardly heard anyone say a word, even though hundreds of people were with me. We were all there to move forward as efficiently as possible, avoid being impaled on one of the many trekking poles at work and to keep breathing as we began to increasingly feel the altitude. For those who could say a few words, the fact that they did not know who else spoke the same language as them, seemed to deter any conversation from sparking and so it began as a very silent race. My first piece of conversation became the quote of the day however. Just before I left for France, a good friend bought me a new pair of really beautiful gaiters for my birthday – thanks again Ta! Heading down the first major descent, I accidentally cut-off an older British gentleman, who as I quickly apologised responded with: “My dear, how could I ever be upset about tripping over such pretty gaiters”. From then on I was known as “pretty shoes” whenever we became reunited on the route.
Before most races I am usually plagued with nightmares about not having what I need, shoe laces being untied or aid stations taking longer to get through than necessary. I have developed the ability to recognise that I am dreaming in these situations and when everything feels deceivingly real I usually wake up by trying to recall how I got to the race that I am not actually running. During the first few hours of UTMB I found myself replaying that day’s journey to the start of the race a number of times just to make sure I really was there. Each recollection ended with a cheesy grin on my face and left me feeling like the most privileged person in the world. The crowds of dedicated supporters who filled the beautifully lit streets of St-Gervais kept this high going as I sailed on to Les Contamines where my husband Dylan was ready to welcome me through the aid station.
As the sun set and then rose the next morning, lighting up a number of glaciers, towering mountains and stunningly technical scree slopes, I was absolutely blown away by the scenery and gained even more excitement for the challenging trail ahead.
I was loving every moment of the route and my epic soundtrack kept my pace beautifully in check as I hit the first climb of the new day. I gained positions steadily, not because I was faster than the other athletes but rather because I was quick through the aid stations while many others seemed to either be having a social picnic or already choosing to retire from the race. After one on the most gruelling descents into Courmayeur, Italy, I was able to head out of the aid station as the 749th athlete having made my way from 1790th position. The quads were starting to hurt and I began to feel the heat wave that everyone had been warning us about. During that descent I just kept thinking how grateful I was that we were not climbing something that steep. Little did I know that the next climb would be just that. After seeing my husband Dylan for the second time and receiving a good dose of encouragement from some fellow South Africans a little after, I started the two hour climb to Refuge Bertone where I would once again be welcomed by spectacular views.
Not long after that I approached the climb up to Grand Col Ferret, the third point above 2500m which would bring me to completing the most cumulative ascent I had ever experienced in one day. For the first time the altitude hit me hard, which left me feeling 10 times heavier and as if I was sinking up to my knees with every step I took. The act of just putting one foot in front of the other took every bit of will I had and it became a long drawn out effort that left me eager to hit the descent as fast as possible in order to quickly decrease the effect I was feeling. The start of the descent marked my entry into Switzerland as well as the realm of running more than 100km for the first time and despite the daunting 70km to go, I began to feel better and enjoy the 20km downhill that awaited me. By now the race was no longer silent and I found myself engaging in many dialogues that did not involve a second English speaker. Even though we did not understand what each other were saying, I could always feel sure that we were agreeing on the beauty, difficulty or resultant pain of the terrain we were exposed to at the time.
Two hours of pure downhill was definitely a first for me and as much as I appreciated the assistance of gravity, I equally welcomed the start of the next climb that would allow some different muscles to work. Around 22:30 that night I found myself falling asleep on my feet for the first time during the race and so I claimed a quick 10 minute sleep at Champex-Lac. At this stage I had created a buffer of around 3 hours and 15 minutes between me and the cut-off time in the hope that it would allow for unforeseen problems and would make me feel sure about finishing during the latter stages of the race. After receiving some much needed encouragement from Dylan, I set off with renewed energy and a determination to keep my buffer for a while longer.
During the next climb and the long decent into Trient, my metabolism shifted a few gears and my body began ploughing through everything I consumed. I would eat and literally within 15 minutes my stomach would be completely empty and my body would begin demanding food as if I hadn’t eaten all day. That is where I made my mistake. Desperate to finish the steep and technical decent and reap the benefits of the aid station at Trient, I allowed my body to deplete further that what it could manage.
Soon after arriving, I began to feel faint and was unable to sit up. After a failed attempt at getting to the medical tent, Dylan managed to find some strong medics to help carry my useless body there. As someone who eats a low-carb diet and does not consume sugar, I half consciously declined the endless offers of Coke and cake, but by then I had allowed my body to reach a point of no return. An hour and a half passed of getting nutrition into my body, trying to sit up and then having my body force me back down again. I kept asking myself: “Is this really how I am going to drop out of this race? How do I explain not finishing something as prestigious as UTMB because of something as silly as fainting?” The only peace I found at that point was the unshakable feeling that after the past two years of God teaching me that these races have nothing to do with my strength but rather His, He was going to make sure that I had no choice but to rely on Him to finish. In desperation I finally agreed to drink some Coke and within two minutes I was back on my feet and moving forward – Don’t tell Tim Noakes!
By now my body had become incredibly cold and I set off very slowly with almost all my warm kit on, peeling each layer off as I began to gain more pace on the next climb. I went slow and steady reminding myself that pushing too hard at that point, could push my body over the edge. After some good intake of food at the next aid station in Vallorcine, the last point where I would see Dylan, I began the final ascent of the race. However soon after leaving, while still on a flat section of trail, I found myself falling asleep on my feet once again and an intense debate about whether to sleep or not plagued my mind for a good while. Luckily before the sleep side of the argument could win, I reached the start of the final big climb to Tête aux vents. When I saw just how high we were going to climb, the shock removed any desire to sleep and I began pressing on with the knowledge that this was going to be a very long experience.
By now it was mid-morning and hotter than ever. Although it had been hot the previous day, there had been plenty of streams and fountains to keep us wet and cool along much of the trail. However, not on this climb. There was not a drop of water nor a breeze to cool us off until we reached a stream on the contour trail that led from the top. That slope did nothing but bake every runner that was still going and at times there was carnage as runners were found either vomiting or buckled over their trekking poles. The climb inevitably was slow and the 4km contour trail before the final descent into Chamonix was uncomfortably technical, making me concerned about whether or not I would reach the final aid station without being cut-off.
Just before that point, I had the encouraging surprise of Dylan who had hiked up the last 8km of the route in order to check if I was OK and to remind me that I was “cutting it fine”. With two hours left to complete a steep and technical downhill that most runners took two hours to complete, I certainly was cutting it fine. However God’s strength came through and I found a renewed ability to push through the pain in my legs, overtake many other runners and smash that downhill in half the time, allowing me to finish in 45 hours and 33 minutes with a final sprint, South African flag in tow. With only 1468 of the 2555 runners finishing the race, of which only 10% were female, I feel incredibly privileged to have experienced the entire UTMB route and to have still had the energy to run through the finish. I had been dreading the ideas of having to complete a long uncoordinated walk through such an exciting finish line. This entire experience would not have been possible without God having my back, Dylan providing such dedicated support and encouragement and all the family and friends who have supported this journey.
To watch my video of my UTMB experience please click on the link. Please not that this video is a combination of my own footage as well as that of the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc brand and work by Andrew Drummond. ~ VIDEO ~