Monday, November 23

UTMB 2015 (in English... sort of...)

I wrote this immediately after the race, but it took me two months to publish it: not bad. Anyhow, it's up for those willing to have a go. Quite long, as usual, but ultrarunners tend to be ultrawriters too. You can find some great photos by my buddy Daniele Nicoli, check out his works here and also here.


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 first stretch to Les Houches was fast, as usual: I talked a little bit with Stefano and Daniele, stopped at the AS and immediately soaked myself head to toe... with electrolytes instead of water. Great start. Had a Coke and then it was time to get serious with the first climb to Le Delevret. Poles out (last minute decision) and let's go. I kept the effort controlled, chatted with Michael Jones, a lad I raced with at the Lakeland 100 who was staying at the camping with us, but he was clearly in great form, so I backed a little bit and enjoyed the downhill to Saint Gervais. Usual enthusiatic crowd and more runnable trails to Les Contamines. I was in a good group with hotties Fernanda Maciel and Stephanie Howe, which suited me fine. Les Contamines is first crew point and last before Courmayeur: I restocked on gels, had some Coke, kissed MC and went on well into the dark now.

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 stretch of tarmac out of Les Chapieux was a welcoming sight. I mostly powerwalked, with some cautious running thrown in, but it was nice to be out with a giant full moon in the middle of the Alps. The climb to Col de la Seigne is hard, but I had a good rythm. I talked with Jesse Hynes, and reached Michele Graglia who already had some issues, but was very nice. There was a strong wind and I put the jacket on for half an hour, then on the descent I went back to vest because I was overheating, what a night. I had almost forgot that the Polettis introduced this year a new part, but before reaching Lac Combal, the line of lights on the mountain facing us quickly reminded me of it.
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
The break of dawn was somehow making me feel tired, dirty and miserable, but then I linked with my friend Christian Modena (who soldiered to a good finish with a terrible stomach) and Michael Jones (who also soldiered to a good finish with terrible stomach). I ran for a while with Joe Grant, who I had the pleasure to meet at the #LikeTheWind night and after Arnouva I followed two german guys who had a good pace.

Descent to Arnouva, legs starting to hurt, sleepy face
The climb to Col Ferret was tough, but I still passed few guys, which is always a morale booster. The following descent has been one of my low points at CCC and UTMB, but I managed to hold onto a group of five and we kept going.

Grinding it to the Col
In the meantime the heat was taking his toll: I finished my water and was starting to worry when I saw a stream. The other guys just filled a bottle and went: I was tempted to follow them and stay with the group, but I knew I had to think about myself. I took plenty of time, drank, filled the bottles and cooled myself in order to digest the gel I just had, and it paid off, because once in La Fouly I had a cup of Coke and went out straight. My buddies from Genova where there and kept me updated: looked like the sun and high temperature meant carnage just started. Woah.

Smooth sailing to La Fouly
Legs felt quite heavy, but I was still capable of running. I even tried to hold on to two spaniards who were on fire, but in one km I went from ok, to not so ok to complete shit. Here we go. I kept grinding, but I was stopping every five mins to put my head in the fresh water of the several fountains we found along the road.

Starting to feel the heat
In the end I finally came to the base of the climb to Champex: it's not that long, but it's steep. I was quite broken: I kept climbing but really slow.

The climb to Champex
Midway there was another fountain and I just sat in and chilled for a while. I made it to the top where all my friends where waiting for me.
With Mighty Gino Martino

Entering the AS at Champex
I sat on the bench at the aid station and finally took some time. Did nothing special, usual Coke and gel, but Maria Carla insisted on changing my vest and relaxing a minute more, and it was good. Along the lake I was still struggling, but as soon as I entered the wood I started rolling again.

Towards Bovine climb
Lovely shade
 At the base of the Bovine climb I catched Seb e Sylvain Camus, two great French trailers, which gave me a good kick. The climb is hard, and this year was even harder considering they added some nonsense scrambling at the end. I catched up with Brits Damian Hall and Robbie Britton. I was gutted for Robbie, because I know the kind of commitment he put in in previous months: I was really hoping he could reach top 10, a goal he is definitely capable of. Tried to cheer him up, but it wasn't his day.


Somehow, I found some legs to run the descent fast enough to put some time on them, but close to Trient Aussie Majell passed me at mach speed. Jeez, where he found the will to push that hard 150 k in? Nonetheless, I was still amped up, and I think it showed up in Trient, where I was in a total high.


Nursed like a baby.
I changed my socks (great great move), refilled and went out with a mission: get to Vallorcine and then start worrying about that last climb.


Cooling down on a fountain outside Trient
For some unexplicable reason I thought the Trient climb to Catogne was really easy and it suited my strenght. I was wrong. I slowly crawled along the path, with Majell disappearing ahead. Most of all, there wasn't a drop of water. Up until then I used to wet my head, wrists and neck in order to lower my body temperature and keep digestion working: here it all went pear shaped. At the top I had to stop for a minute sipping my last water from bottles and wondering what would happen next.
The death march to Catogne
 Luckily I stumbled into the aid station where they had two refreshing taps of water: I sat under it and saw behind me another Italian guy, Ivano Molin. He's a super strong runner from Dolomites, but I wasn't willing to give up without fighting: I pushed on the descent and got a small gap between us, but after that it became technical, the handle of my pole snapped and Ivano was simply better on that terrain. But I was happy, close to Vallorcine and I even met my buddy Victor Mound (you told me you would have come to the finish sucker... I still owe you a beer!) who cheered me on.

Almost in Vallorcine
The sight of Vallorcine aid station, with all my mates shouting was just too good, Even Sonia and Fulvio were there and I was almost close to tears.

The Terzo Ristoro posse in Vallorcine
 I stocked on few gels, filled my bottle and went out. With a steady walk and some bouts of running I started the climb to Col Montets, but before I stopped at the river to refresh. Ivano passed me by, and I stayed 50 meters behind. At Col Montets my crew should have been telling me to relax and take it easy, that I was almost done. At least that's what I would have loved to hear. Instead, Maria Carla told me I had to try to get Ivano and whoever was ahead of me, to attack and let it go on the last downhill.
I was still in survival mode, but her words... just clicked something in me.

MC schooling me at Col Montets
As I started the real climb to Tete aux Vents with Massi, Sonia and Luca from Genova shouting at me, I promised to myself that if Ivano was still in sight at the top, I had to try to catch him.

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
My buddies were there going wild and I was out of my mind: I don't remember exactly but I think I might have bowed to the mountain and then put my hands on the knees to savour everything before finally having Maria Carla with me. Massi came with a bottle of beer who was just perfect and then we moved out of the finish line. 26:03:53, good enough for 27th place. Not bad, not bad at all.
Done and dusted
I was tired, but not trashed. We stayed for a while sipping Yogi tea and chatting with friends, letting the feelings sink in, before going to the camping for a shower. After that I still had enough will to go back by foot to the finish line fore some cheering and a burger at Macca. And then it was oblivion.

What do you do when yo have just had gels and Coke for 26 hours?
Have a go at a good old ale...
The following morning I stuffed my mouth with pastries and just enjoyed the finish line, sharing few laughs with my buddies and supporting the finishers. I know you've heard it a million times, but the finish line at a 100 is one of the most powerful places you'll find: great stuff.

The best feeling ever... sitting down with MC after 26h 
That's basically all.

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.

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