As I'm sitting at the desk, sipping a good cup of coffe after an hearty bowl of pasta, I'm watching the sea and wondering if I'll go out for a run or not. I might. But will probably not. Guess I'll indulge in a couple of beers and let the day slip away slowly, savouring the pleasure of seeing the sun disappear behind the mountain in my garden.
Any other day, I'd be itching to answer the last few e-mails in order to put my shorts on and go out for as long as the light would allow me. Not today.
Because I've just run 100 miles around the biggest baddest mountain in Europe (oh yeah, Central Europe, nowadays). I still have trashed quads. I'm still as sleepy as a koala. My body still needs to understand how to be back at a decent functional level. And my mind needs some time to reorganize after spending so much time thinking about splits, calories and water intake only. But the deep sense of satisfaction and gratitude that sits deep in my mind, stands as a reminder of the 26 hours I spent around Mont Blanc.
It took me 4 years to go back at UTMB. I loved it the first time: first hundo, met some guys who went on to become great friends, finished well and the whole experience opened up a new world for me.
I knew I wanted to have another go, but I also knew I wanted to be ready to tackle it in a different way.
I had my year planned in a perfect way: buy our new house in October. Work on it during the off season. Back to training, NDW 50 as a tune up, then a hard block before Lavaredo Ultra Trail. After that, full on UTMB training camp. In the end, we got the keys in February, I worked my ass off for three months in the house, trained at dawn only on tarmac and ended up running NDW 50 with minimal mileage and Lavaredo with even less training exactly four days after moving into a house that still had no kitchen and various other commodities such as a working flush or a bed. God knows how, both races still went reasonably well.
|Me and my mate Massi at the finish line of NDW 50, happy to share podium.|
But I knew I had to ramp up for Chamonix, and that's exactly what I did. Due to work commitments, I had not much time for longer runs or weekends in the Alps, but I made the most of the incredible trails I have in my backyard. Yes, we had the hottest summer of the last 50 years... but as you might know, heat training came unexpectedly handy at the race.
That said, I was confident. I had in me what it took to have a decent race. And I relaxed on the days before the race, cheering my mates and scrounging food and beers at the various parties. I was still very calm Friday afternoon when I was preparing my pack, drops and giving last instructions to my girlfriend MC who once again was willing to travel for two days around three countries in order to pick up my pieces. But once she dropped me in town, the whole magnitude of the task I had in front, the crowd, the atmosphere got me, and while I walked to the start line between lines of screaming spectators I felt like a kid at first day of school. I tried to find a place behind the superstars and then luckily my buddies James Elson and Rick Ashton called me and I sat with them, Danny Kendall and Majell Blackahausen in the sun, chatting and laughing. I didn't even notice the silly Vangelis music (what a pain the ass) and once started I just figured out how not to be killed by 2300 runners behind me.
|Still fresh on the first climb|
|The climb to Bonhomme, great atmosphere|
The climb to Col du Bonhomme start with one of my favourite part of the course: there are hundreds of guys lined up on the first climb, very Tour de France. If you can't get a decent kick out of it, you're probably a robot or emotionally dead. I was doing fine on the climb and also in the following traverse. I was staying with my friend Daniele Gaido who is a top lad and I attacked the descent with gusto until my Petzl NAO (who was kindly provided by Petzl, but I had no time to test) went out and I fell on my ankle. Boy, I was pissed. Exactly ten days before the race I rolled the same ankle, and it was almost a miracle I recovered without any issue... please not now and not because I wanted to run with a posh headlamp I never tried! Stood up and tried the ankle: ok, working. Headlamp: dim light, I need to change the batteries but I had no idea how it worked. Ok, I'll do it at the aid station. With some attention I did the last 3 kms and once in Les Chapieux I saw the Petzl tent: yeah man, perfect timing. With new batteries and some Coke I was ready to go.
|Out in the warm night|
The Pyramidees loop? A solemn pain in the ass. A climb on bog and rocks followed by a nasty descent on boulders and talus field where there was no way of getting a decent rythm until the Rifugio Elisabetta, almost back to Lac Combal. Completely useless and out of place in a race like this. At least once to Lac Combal Maria Carla was there cheering me on: she told me I was doing great, and that I had some other italian guys just ahead of me. I left in good mood, ready to tackle the last part before Courmayeur.
I passed Danny Kendall, who was not having the best day, but still in great mood, passed Stephanie Howe before Mont Favre and a limping Jeff Browning on the descent.
The last part to Courmayeur is a nightmare of a downhill, I was scared shitless of it, but in the end it was better than expected, and once in Courmayeur good friend and great runner Alessandro Montani escorted me to the Forum Sport Center.
I knew I was doing good, and I didn't want to waste a lot of time. Maria Carla was perfect as usual in giving me updates and helping me out with supplies, and in 4 minutes I was out again. I even got briefly lost in Courmayeur, which was a ghost town at 3 am (the Italian side doesn't shine for support, let's say) and then I slowly climbed to Bertone, where I saw Sage Canaday pulling out after a bad fall at Pyramidees.
|First lights at the Mont Blanc|
|Descent to Arnouva, legs starting to hurt, sleepy face|
|Grinding it to the Col|
|Smooth sailing to La Fouly|
|Starting to feel the heat|
|The climb to Champex|
|With Mighty Gino Martino|
|Entering the AS at Champex|
|Towards Bovine climb|
|Nursed like a baby.|
|Cooling down on a fountain outside Trient|
|The death march to Catogne|
|Almost in Vallorcine|
|The Terzo Ristoro posse in Vallorcine|
I was still in survival mode, but her words... just clicked something in me.
|MC schooling me at Col Montets|
The climb was horrific, but once at the top after several false summits, sunset was painting Mont Blanc and the Jorasses of a wonderful glow of orange and 30 chamois stood along the trail. I was about to finish UTMB, and everything seemed right. Pure magic.
Ivano was 2/3 mins ahead with a French guys also in sight: I folded my poles, put them in the pack and told to myself that I was going down, I was going down fighting. I felt good without the sticks, because I was moving faster and better and when I saw the long smooth traverse before La Flegere, I went all out. It was one of those moments when nothing will stop you, I was pushing myself to the limit with reckless abandon and it felt great. I exchanged few words with Ivano (classy guy) and pushed on.
At La Flegere I just had some Coke and went out immediately: I was scared shitless of having to sprint until the end with someone. It wouldn't have changed anything one position more or less, but during a race you're not always that clear, and I was in a total high. After the first steep ski piste, I entered the trail and let everything go: I was really cruising, legs still fresh (almost), enough energy to bring me to the end and the finish line almost in sight. But I pushed on at La Floria, pushed more on the road track and even on tarmac, until I crossed the bridge and saw Fulvio waiting for me on the corner: that was an absolutely incredible moment, because I realized I did it, and I was going to finish well. I started to high five everyone and smile and kept running through the streets still packed of people. At the corner Maria Carla was waiting for me like four years prior. I did the last loop and finally the finish line appeared in front of me.
|Out of control|
|Done and dusted|
|What do you do when yo have just had gels and Coke for 26 hours?|
Have a go at a good old ale...
|The best feeling ever... sitting down with MC after 26h|
The race? Oh dear, many things have been said. Most of them true. But UTMB still is the place to be at the end of August. If you're into trail running and mountains, you have to give it a go at least once. It's big, and it definitely miss some of the "soul" of smaller events, With almost 6000 runners racing in one week, that would be quite difficult to mantain. But on the other hand, the organization is flawless (really is, no doubt), Chamonix is beautiful and the course is unique. Yup, it's not hypertechnical, doesn't involve any mountaineering skill or glacier traverse, and nobody died yet during the race. Nonetheless, the idea of travelling as fast as possible around the highest mountain of (right, Central) Europe still is quite appealing. It's a course with a logic and it takes you to some incredibly wonderful places. The attempt to make it "harder" by adding nonsense loops it's quite stupid, and I hope they'll go back to the usual course.
|For those who do not understand all the fuss about Cham...|
Gear geeks only. Used my trusty La Sportiva Helios, light but still beefy enough and with some room in the box: perfect. Had Injinjii socks which I changed in Trient with some Drymax padded socks to give some relief to my poor feets. La Sportiva Pace shorts (banana yellow) and Zero Running Company vest which I changed in Champex with a new one. I put my arm panties during the night over the passes and only during the climb to Col de la Seigne I had to put my La Sportiva Hail jacket on for half an hour because it was very windy. Powerbar trucker cap on and the rest (La Sportiva 3/4 manpri, La Sportiva Hail trousers, buff and gloves) stayed in the pack.
About the pack... I had the Salomon Ultra Set and it's a bomb. Usual diet of Powerbar gels with a couple of Powerbar Recovery drinks here and there. Add some Coke at the AS and you have a perfect plan, at least one that works for me. And no, it's not nice to swallow the 30th gel right after La Flegere, but if you know it will take you to the end without the stomach issues many of your pals had, then the taste doesn't really matter.
I brought the poles. I wasn't really sure, and if you ask me now, I'm still not sure I'd take them again. They're a big help in longer climbs, most of all for the back. But once folded away, I immediately felt better, more responsive and nimble: sometimes they tend to make you a little bit sleepy and lazy. On the other hand, if I was able to run also the last 5 kms, might be because I saved my legs with the sticks before. Who knows?
Headlamp: I had the oppoertunity to use the Petzl NAO but I wasn't that happy with it. The reactive light adjust also to reflective taping or the backpacks of those ahead, which I didn't like at all. And it left me in the middle of the descent to Les Chapieux. Somebody told me that you have to program it and avoid reactive lightning, but then I'd go for a MYO which is easier to handle and manage. And that's exactly what I did once I got to Courmayeur. As a backup I had a small E-Lite... but once my NAO faltered I was starting to panick, whishing I had a real spare and not just a small emergency light.
Analyzing my own race after few days, I'm extremely happy with everything. Nutrition, pacing, approach was spot on, also thanks to MC and my friends who never stopped cheering me on. Trainingwise, I was ready and rested. I probably would have needed a little bit more of climbing in my legs, because after Champex I had nothing more than solid marching left, while most of the downhills I was still cruising pretty well. A couple of longer runs in the 7/8 hours range might have helped too. But it's ok, and I honestly don't know how much it would have changed my performance. I might be back or not: it's the kind of race where you need a lot of motivation to prepare properly and next year I want to go back to more runnable stuff. And more than that I still need some time to recover before thinking about running 100 miles again.
Two months have passed, and I can finally say I fully recovered. The week after the race I had a blood test and it showed CK count over the moon. I was absolutely ok, but it was a clear sign I gave all I had out there. It's the magic of 100 milers, and that's also why I decided to put my name in the hat in few lotteries again... Whatwever happens, I'll be back at a starting line of a hundo again: because it's for me the ultimate challenge in ultrarunning, the sacred distance. It's addictive, and I know it: I pretend to play it safe, but the feeling of getting to the finish line it's just overwhelming, and it stays with you for months. Too good to quit.