Photo taken by Randall Levensaler

Friday, September 5, 2014

Finding My Stride

Sealing the Deal
Two years ago I had the opportunity to watch the 2012 UTMB before racing my first time abroad at the Jungfrau Marathon in Switzerland for the World Long Distance Championships.  At the time, I wasn’t really into the ultra game (I had just raced my first 50k a month earlier- Speedgoat 50k), and was still experimenting with the idea of running long. Non the less, I was feeling psyched to see what Euro running was all about.

Upon arrival in Chamonix, I was blown away by the majestic meringue topped Mont Blanc. The mountain had it’s own unique personality…it would hypnotize you with its beauty and would call you to climb it, run it, ski it. I fell instantly under its “spell.”
Mont Blanc, Chamonix

The Chamonix valley was buzzing with anxious energy and bright colored UTMB The North Face finisher’s vests from previous years.  I had never seen a town and its residents embrace the running community with such enthusiasm and pride. Something about this observance made me feel like I was visiting my family on a holiday.  It was welcoming, warm, and loving. 
Jon Webb, Ashley Arnold, and I looking down on Chamonix from Plan de l'Aiguille in 2012.

Watching the runners “go into battle” against the beastly course that lay in front of them was so motivating and inspiring.  The only thing more magical was seeing all of the town’s people and other supporters line the last quarter mile of the course, cheering as these runners made their way back across the finish line. It moved my heart, which resulted in emotional water works. Yep, total softie.

This brief experience had “sealed the deal” for committing to come back and live it.

Life Abroad…the Leadup
Two years later me and my training partner, Ashley Arnold, were sitting in the Boulder library booking a flat in Chamonix proper for a month’s stay leading up to the CCC and UTMB. I sat there with mixed emotions of fear and excitement thinking this could be an amazing adventure, or one hell of a disaster. As my mouse hovered over the “book now” button, I looked Ashley in the eye and said “should we book it…we are really going to do this?!” Then the mouse went CLICK! I don’t think I actually waited for her response. hehe 
Goofballs and training partners.

We arrived in Chamonix on August 6th.

Our mornings consisted of two shots of espresso and warm milk, and a chilly walk down the cobblestone roads to visit “the woman” who works at Pain Fleury (or Fleury Jean…which is the BEST pastry shop in Chamonix).  We looked forward to greeting the mountain (when it wasn’t hiding behind the clouds), to getting our caffeine fix, to deciphering the woman’s morning message spoken in complete and perfect French, and to staring through the spotless glass case picking out the best looking treat she had made that morning. This was a ritual. 
Laundry day in our flat. Who needs a dryer!?

Starry eyed, Ashley and I would gaze at multiple maps (courtesy of Mike Foote) and plan our adventures. I would feel overwhelmed looking at the endless possibilities, and found myself wishing I had booked the flat for two months instead of one.

We hopped free trains and buses to the towns of Courmayeur, Vallorcine, Les Houches, and Trient. The only area we were unable to reach (without traveling for 4 hours) by public transport was Switzerland. 

The climbs would start in thickly wooded forests and steeply zig-zag above treeline. You were rewarded with an amazing view of the Mont Blanc massif and a refugio that would happily serve a light lunch and warm you up with a cafĂ© au lait, at a cost of course. Normally I don’t like to stop on runs, but I couldn’t help taking photo pit-stops at every high point. I want to make sure I have photos if I ever get into scrapbooking…

Thanks to the traffic of hikers, the majority of the trail was pretty smooth. It was nice to spin the legs and get some speed after crawling up the climbs. 
Ash and I enroute to La Flegere

This course also has its fair share of technical terrain. I thought it was crucial to practice the technical downs since I would be running them in the dark on race day. I didn’t want to deal with too many surprises since night running was already my crux.

Go Time
Friday had come; it was finally race day. As I sat on the shuttle to Courmayeur I kept wishing the town was further away. I was more nervous than I had been in a long time because of the immense pressure I was putting on myself. The enormity of the race was really sinking in and I began to question what the hell I was thinking.

I hopped off the bus and slowly walked to the center of Courmayeur. The starting arch was tattooed with sponsor logos and reached high over the road. Hanson’s Umm Bop played over the loud speakers (no joke) to get us in pumped up...ha. Anxious runners painted in spandex gathered behind the starting line fiddling with their gear to kill the final countdown minutes. Supporters lined the chute yelling inspirational phrases and snapped photos of their loved ones. A low flying helicopter hovered overhead gathering footage of the organized madness below. All of sudden, I had to pee. Nerves were well in check. 
20 minutes before start in Courmayeur

The UTMB theme song (also the theme song from Last of the Mohicans), blared as we slowly made our way across the starting line into town. The positive energy from the crowd was contagious and forced my fears and uncertainties to disappear. It was going to be a good day.

I spent the first 2 hours of my race hiking up a steep 5,000 foot (approx.) climb. Like anyone who isn’t thrilled about “hills,” I kept wishing for the top. I was stuck in a conga line of pain…a row of 1900 people stretching up and down the mountain all suffering the same burn. The upside, we completed the largest (and hardest) climb within the first few miles of the race.

Gung-ho fans hiked to the top of the Tete de la Tronche to greet us with their cowbells and  “allez allez allez” chants. The helicopter again hovered overhead in order to catch the triumphant moment we crested the first pass. I was never so happy to welcome harsh gusts of cold wind, for this meant I was at the top!

Relieved that the burning would finally cease (at least for a while), I embraced the next 15 kilometers with an up-tempo pace all the way to the Arnuva aid station (27km into the course). The slight downhill grade was perfect…this was my wheelhouse.

I took some time to properly refuel which meant filling my hydration pack and being sure to consume 5-8 tasty items from the huge buffet. I remembered to beware of the “eyes larger than stomach” syndrome! I gave my praises to the amazing volunteers and aid station support and was on my way.

Next up was the long ascent to the Grand col Ferret. The top of this pass is where Italy and Switzerland meet. Those who know me well know I’m not the biggest fan of climbing. I consider myself a much better downhiller and quite speedy on rolling/flat terrain.

I prepared mentally to try and embrace the pain cave, I had to conquer the mountain no matter if I liked it or not. I was a quarter of the way up and felt no fatigue…half way up, still no pain. All of sudden I felt like a rock star. I said to myself, “is this it…is this all the mountain has to throw at me?” I was pumped to finally experience what it was like to cruise up hill. I passed 3 women and multiple men, which fed my energy even more.

I had reached the top, and also cloud 9…my grin was ear to ear. I now understood why Rory Bosio smiled the entire time around UTMB. Confidence, a positive outlook, and the ability to just have fun, really do make one’s racing more relaxed and successful. 
Somewhere on on CCC

Next up was 13 miles of “butta” like downhill. It was time for me to go hunting. I love reeling people in…much rather pursue than be chased. I caught another 2-3 women and over 10 men by the time I arrived at Champex-Lac. I was so charged on adrenaline I felt invincible.

Champex is a very important and huge aid station. We are talking festival sized white tents pumped with warm air and lined with tables filled with gourmet treats, both sweet and savory. This is also the first aid station where CCC racers are allowed to have crew. I was very lucky that my new friend and fellow racer, Kelsie Clauson, had offered her mother’s help to crew a bag of gear for me. Hillary made eye contact with me as soon as I entered the tent and was quick to serve Pepsi and sweet/salty snacks. I was so thankful to see a friendly face, hear some English, and refuel. After a speedy and most likely awkward clothing change (dry shirt and sports bra) I was on my way.

A few minutes out of Champex, my stomach turned. This part of the course was fairly flat, so I was bummed to have to take it slow in order to calm my tummy. This was my real first “low” in the race, but I just kept telling myself it would pass. After a few solid burps, it did.

One of my race goals was to make it to Trient in the daylight. After that point there would be no more course surprises since I had practiced this section thru to the finish. I knew the recky would help my mental game when tackling it in the dark.

I was able to make it all the way to Catogne (top of climb after Trient) before having to pull out headlamps. It had started raining as I left the Trient aid station, so I decided that my pit stop for the lamps was also a good time for the rain jacket and gloves. It was now dark, wet, and cold…my nerves were starting to come back.

The downhill from Catogne to the Vallorcine aid station is fairly technical and even worse when you add water to the mix. My pace was forced to slow as I heeded to the slippery dangers. Feelings of frustration and anxiety took over as I worried about getting caught.

As I entered the Vallorcine aid tent, the rain wasn’t letting up and it was getting colder. I had one more ascent to tackle and was dreading what the conditions were like up high.  Temptation to stay in the tent danced in my mind.,.how nice it would be to relax and stay warm. I sucked down a bowl of chicken noodle soup to warm up and then forced myself back out into the rain for the final 13 miles. I could make it.

I now experienced my second and final low point. It wasn’t from food, but from a feeling of possible defeat and fear. I haven’t practiced much night running, and never any night running up high in adverse conditions. I told myself to keep moving forward because it would generate heat and eventually I would reach La Flegere (final aid station before Chamonix).

The drenched rocks sent my feet sliding as I climbed up to the Tete aux vents. Conditions only worsened as I traversed to La Flegere. Again, I was frustrated by my slow pace, worried about hypothermia, and was manifesting a female chase behind me.

I reached Flegere and was never so happy to drink a hot bowl of chicken noodle soup. No women had passed and final 5 miles were downhill. Finally feeling upbeat and re-energized I took off down the mountain envisioning the finish line with every step I took.

My excitement grew in spades when I hit the pavement at the bottom of the trail. I had a mile to go which would take me around town past encouraging supporters and lead into the famed finish chute. My heartbeat was in my ears, while everything else was silent.

Left right, left right. Every step brought me closer. My smile was ear to ear. There it was, the vision I had been dreaming about for two years. I ran through the finishing arch with my arms raised high. I had done it! My endorphins had never been so high, I had never been so happy. This was everything I wanted and it had come true. 
CCC finish...and my pain face, which is actually code for I'm so happy!

I completed my first 100k in 5th place with a time 15:59:13. My goals were to be in the top 5, top US female, and run under 16 hours to get a Western States 100 qualifier for 2015. I had accomplished them all J.  On top of that, I learned how to capitalize on my strengths and how correct my weaknesses. This was one of the best racing experiences of my life…to date J

Thank you to all those who have believed and supported me! My sponsors: PepsiCo, Julbo, New Balance, Pro-Tec Athletics, Ultimate Direction, my friends and my family, I love you all! Thanks for taking this journey with me, I couldn’t have done it without you!