After trying for 3 years to get into the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB, 100 miles, 30,000ft of elevation gain) and the Tor des Geants (TdG, 205 miles, 80,000ft of elevation gain), two epic bucket-list races, Murphy’ Law struck: I got into both. Unable to decide which of the two races I should drop, I figured I’d simply attempt both. The only problem: UTMB is one week before Tor. Yet, every problem can be turned into a challenge.
To tackle the challenge, I came up with a modest “Madsterplan” that I was hoping would get me ready for the heavy back-to-back mileage and elevation gain without proper recovery in-between. Without a coach and any idea what I’m doing, I made this up based on my own experience. So don’t follow my example and don’t try this at home.
The peak of my training consisted in completing three tough races all one week apart: Ochoco 100k,
Tushars 100k John Cappis 50k, and Ouray 100. Before that final cycle, I went through similar cycles, but with less intensity. The goal was to gradually build up the strength I needed, especially for the elevation gain, and to get better at back-to-back efforts. My biggest worry were injuries because that would have crushed the entire plan, and probably have led to lots of race cancellations. Luckily, I was able to stay clear of any major issues.
Direct URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u7Hm9T0Tga0
Direct URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sMErmq2zMmU
Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB)
I arrived in Courmayeur (Italy) one day before the UTMB start. There was no time for any course exploration, acclimatization, or time zone adjustment. But with a 6pm start on Friday, I figured being on US time zone may not be so bad.
Unfortunately, I ended up almost missing the start. We literally slept 24h after arriving. At 3pm we were supposed to leave for Chamonix. At 3:10pm, we woke up. Thankfully I had packed everything during the night, at a moment I wasn’t able to sleep. After a stressful drive through the Mt. Blanc tunnel with lots of traffic and waiting, we made it to the start, where I devoured two donuts and an espresso. I hadn’t have time to eat anything yet. After that, I discovered that one of my gels had a leak and was making me sticky all over. Oh well. I decided to sit down and to focus on the next 30+ hours instead of cleaning and worrying.
The start ended up being pushed back by 30min and some course modification were announced because of bad weather and snow. We were all warned that the temperatures would be below freezing higher up. After a lot of circus and tohuwabohu, we were finally sent off into the evening. The crowds went nuts along the course until far into the night. I found the loud cow bell noises and the screaming rather distracting. Equally distracting were runners taking calls on the trail. What the heck. Clearly, a drawback of a 2,400-runner race is that you are essentially never on your own.
Since I was quite far behind at the start, I tried to gradually work my way up to where I felt I had had a place in the field. In doing so, I probably went out too fast and paid for it later. It didn’t take too long until my stomach felt queasy. Nothing new in itself. I tried my usual things.
I felt pretty strong on the uphills and typically passed a lot of runners, on the downhills it was the exact opposite. You can see that nicely on the tracking. Once again I realized how much I suck on technical downhills.
Sometime after 6am I reached Courmayeur with my one and only dropbag. I tried to eat and took a 15min nap that I was hoping would calm my stomach. After changing into new shoes, I was off again. The shoe change was probably not a good idea. I should have kept the La Sportiva Mutant because they would have worked much better than the Hoka ATR3 in the mud that was yet to come.
As we worked our way up to the Grand Col Ferret, the highest pass on the course, the weather started to turn really sour. It rained cats and dogs and snowed near the top of the pass. Everything was iced-over, slippery, and muddy. I had all my layers on and still struggled to stay warm.
Besides a never-ending climb in thick fog up to the last peak, I only vividly remember a 10km (or so) road section after La Fouly. I had no clue about this section because I did not study the course. It was terrible by all means and even beyond.
Overall, I never felt like I was getting into any kind of race vibe or zone. The weather conditions were rather challenging and the going was slower than I wanted it to be. That was perhaps partly due to my thinking that I didn’t want to get injured and that I didn’t want to go out full throttle because I had Tor scheduled in a week. Perhaps it was also because I knew there was no way I could be competitive in a race that was so incredibly stacked with elite runners.
I reached the finish in a rather disappointing 32:03:59 hours, which was good for 214th place (65th in my age category). There wasn’t a single reason why I was slow, except perhaps old age. In any case, I had no time and energy to brood over my time, so I filed UTMB under “completed” and tried to focus on the next big thing, although that looked like mission impossible at that point.
In the week between UTMB and Tor, I ate, slept, and worked a lot. I also did some short runs and hiked some of the Tor course (see photos below). By the end of the week, I felt like I had recovered as good as humanly possible. My legs were not fresh, but nothing hurt and overall I felt pretty confident that I could possibly finish Tor. At least it didn’t look like mission impossible anymore.
Tor des Geants (TdG)
This time I didn’t oversleep and was at the start on time. Getting the bib had taken more then two hours the previous day, so I was ready for some more delays. The “race commissioners” hadn’t accepted my ultralight crampons because they were apparently not pointed enough. Luckily I had another pair in the car with me that satisfied their criteria. As at UTMB (and opposed to what I’ve seen at Lavaredo 120k), it was obvious that the race organization was dead serious about the mandatory gear list. For good reasons.
The circus at the Tor start was similar to the UTMB circus. We started late because people arrived late for the GPS tracker check. I wore a bigger (and much heavier) UD pack than at UTMB because we had more gear to carry. Luckily, the weather forecast was good for at least the next 3 days. Then things were supposed to turn sour. And they did. We got a bit of everything, from hours of Tor-rential rain to fresh snow. But no matter what, the scenery remained epic.
Contrary to UTMB, I had actually established a pace table for Tor. Based on previous results and some spreadsheet simulations, I figured that 100 hours could be a somewhat realistic finish time for me. Yet, a lot would depend on how much sleep I was going to need. While I didn’t have a solid sleeping plan, my thinking was that I’d try to do 25min power naps as long as I could, then sleep longer if needed. Power naps have worked well for me in the past, but you can’t do that forever.
So off we went into the day. Soon the first climb helped to spread out he field. Nevertheless, people were frantically trying to pass each other on the uphill, saving a few seconds. Surely, that would make a difference on a 330km race.
I was glad that my legs seemed to somehow work. My focus was on relentless forward motion. With 850ish runners in the field, many of which were elite, it was clear from the beginning that I was unlikely going to be finishing in the top 100. So I tried to leave my competitive side behind and tried instead to enjoy the journey because this was going to be a long week no matter what.
The Tor course has 6 “Life Bases” where you get access to your moving drop bag. So that roughly makes 50km between the major aid stations. I had no crew and pacers were not allowed in any case. Besides the “Life Bases,” there were many smaller aid stations.
On the first 50km leg I broke a pole. Not a good start, I was thinking. Luckily, I had packed a spare pole in my drop bag. The spare pole later also started to fall apart, but I was able to use it until the end of the race. Very few people were pole-less. With the massive amount of climbing, the course literally screamed for poles.
I’ll save you all the details of the race because I don’t feel I can accurately account for things. On the last big climb I cracked and got out my phone for the first time to take some pics. The scenery was just too epic. The other epic moment was sometime deep into one of the nights when I reached an aid station after an endless pass-crossing. My eyes started glowing with the sight of a bowl of baked potatoes with a huge bottle of mayonnaise next to it. That totally made my night. I pretty much devoured the entire potato and mayo stock, finished with an espresso, and left into the dark and cold night again.
Until the very end, high up on the Col de Malatra, finishing the race seemed mission impossible. Similar to the Tor elevation profile, my mental and physical states were a roller coaster. There were challenges, struggles, and pain that I don’t even know how to put into words. Ditto for epic moments of joy and gratitude.
To my own surprise, I suddenly was confronted with the finish line after spending 109:57:04 hours on the course. That was good for a 70th place. My total sleep time was about 2.5h. Clearly, I was not well rested by then, but I was still able to run. Of the 867 runners at the start, 461 finished the race, 406 gave up. The Tor tracking indicated a total completed distance of 339km/211mi with 30,908m/10,1404ft of elevation gain. Quite a lot more than advertised.
The Tor course was by far the most epic and beautiful of all the races I’ve ever done. It was without any doubt one of the finest and most challenging journeys.
Within 2 weeks, I had moved 331mi/500km and climbed 132,000ft/40,234m. The only time I’ve done more weekly miles was during the 750-mi Oregon Desert Trail (ODT) completion, which lasted 17 days and 15 hours. But that journey did also involve more than 2.5h of sleep. Which challenge was harder? Well, they were different.
The recovery has been slow, mainly due to more travel and the inability to get enough sleep. I’ll probably take a week off from running and take it from there. That would be my first week off since I started running in 2013. We’ll see how that goes. In the meantime, I’ll focus on food and beer…
People always ask me what’s next. Often I don’t even have an answer. Although there might be other things between now and January 2018, the next big thing I’m currently signed up for is the The Spine Race: “The MONTANE® Spine® Race is widely regarded as one of the world’s toughest endurance races. A truly epic challenge that will test your physical resilience and mental fortitude. Racing non-stop along the most iconic trail in the UK, you will experience the full intensity and ferocity of the British Winter. Prepare yourself for the biggest challenge of your life.”
The route is 268mi long and follows the entire Pennine Way. The Spine Race is part of the 5 Legends Series.