Saturday, 10 September 2011

UTMB Race Report - Working Out What Went Wrong?!!!

Hi Again

Not sure how far I will get with this race report tonight, as I'm not really sure what the key message will be. 

(Well I didn't get that far, I guess I got around half way, (a bit like the race!), but it has now been a few days since I first started typing up this report. Maybe it will get finished tonight!)

I have given the UTMB race a wee bit of thought over the last week or so, but I find that it is not until I start typing up my blog report, uninterrupted, in the quiet of the night, that things really start to become clear.  So hopefully as I type, I will manage to identify What Went Wrong!

UTMB was my number one focus race for 2011.  Having ran it back in 2009, where it was such an amazing enjoyable experience, I had to go back, to get the same enjoyment, and to improve on my finishing time of 26 hours and 29 minutes.  So I bypassed the Lakeland 100 this year, (another great race), in order to be totally prepared for UTMB.  And come Friday morning of race day, I felt fully prepared.  I had the same sort of feeling that I had prior to the 2010 Lakeland 100, so I was expecting another positive experience.

One of the key things I work on when preparing for ultra trail races, is to spend quite some time giving thought to what I will encounter during the event.  I look in detail at information about the course, such as; how many checkpoints, the distance/likely time between them, the terrain of the course, the number of climbs, the elevation gain, likely underfoot conditions, running in daylight or at night, etc.  Although it can be useful to have recced the race route prior to race day, this is not essential, and as the UTMB course is very clearly marked there are no navigation issues.  So the reason for my expected improved finish time was more due to my improvement as an ultra trail runner over the last two years, what I had learnt over the last two years, so not really because it was the second time that I was running the event and therefore familiar with the course.

However, during my preparation in terms of considering what I would encounter during the event, I did find myself frequently remembering back to 2009, re-visualising the key things from two years ago.  The warm, sunny night, the amazing atmosphere at the start line in Chamonix, the huge crowds and the huge noise they made, not just in Chamonix, but along the course, especially at St Gervais, and at Notre Dame Gorge, the amazing scenery, the awesome snowtopped mountains, etc. 

Physically wise, training had also gone well.  Having run the 2009 UTMB on a 20 week build-up of only 34.5 miles per week average, I considered that maybe this low mileage was not sufficient in order to achieve a sub 24 hour time, which was my aim back in 2009, and was still my aim for 2011.  So over the latest two years I had gradually increased my mileage, resulting in the 20 week average prior to UTMB this year being 51.7 miles.  I increased my weekly mileage, mainly due to an underlying 'nagging' that to run a sub 24 hour at UTMB, more than 35 miles per week was needed, as I was not totally confident that 35 miles per week was sufficient, and if the confidence isn't there, then, a change is needed.  Although 51.7 miles per week was the biggest mileage average I had done for over 25 years, I felt comfortable with the amount, as the increase had been gradual over the last two years.  As I mentioned in my lengthy post titled "Training for Ultras - What's It All About?" probably the key aspect of the physical training is that it develops your self expectation of what you belief you are capable of achieving.  So, leading up to the race, it felt like all of the boxes were ticked!

So where did it all go wrong???  As with all of my blog posts, they are firstly for my benefit, a chance to clarify my thoughts, to learn from my racing and training, and secondly they are about sharing this reflecting process with others via the blog, to possibly enable other runners to learn and benefit from what I have learnt.  So I hope that readers of my blog will not feel as though my analysis of what went wrong is all about me making excuses for a poor DNF performance, or to blame anyone for my DNF.  Therefore before I progress with this race report, I just want to clarify my position on the UTMB organisation as I have seen that within some other runner's blogs there has been some criticism.  Based on what the UTMB organisers had to deal with, the variable weather, the absolutely huge numbers of runners, I think they were just amazing, the way they were able to adapt start times, race routes etc. to take into account the extreme weather conditions. My aim of my race reflection within this post is about trying to understand why I just did not perform, and to ensure that it doesn't happen again!  As I know one thing for sure, for me, pulling out of a race was definitely one very un-enjoyable, demotivating, confidence crushing thing to do, and something I hope to learn from, to ensure that it will be another 26 years before it happens again!  Hopefully I will not get too negative during this post, as after all it is only a race, and looking back of the last few years I have had such an amazing journey!

Back to race day, Friday morning.  I had arrived out in France on the Monday, and was staying at the 31 kilometre mark, at the village of Les Contamines.  I was involved with the Alpine-Oasis running camp, which was being led by Andy Mouncey (2nd place finisher at 2010 and 2011 Lakeland 100).  There was a really positive buzz within the camp, which further raised my expectations of a positive performance come race day.  During the week, there are actually four races.  The PTL had started on the Monday night, consisting of 302km.  The TDS (112km) had started on the Thursday morning, and the CCC (98km) was starting on the Friday morning.  We had watched the leaders of the TDS pass through Les Contamines on the Thursday night, and the first thing I did upon waking on Friday morning was to wander down to the checkpoint in the centre of the village and watch the last few TDS runners pass through.  This was the first I heard of the delayed start to the UTMB.  Although it was another beautiful blue sky, and sunshine, apparently snow and heavy rain were forecast, so the start was delayed 5 hours until 11:30pm.
I didn't really give this 5 hour delay much thought.  There was nothing I could do about it, so not worth getting upset about it.  I readjusted my likely arrival times at each of the 24 timing checkpoints, and I recall being a little disappointed that the delayed start would now mean that I would be finishing in the dark.  Back in 2009 I ran the last 20 minutes in the dark, as it tends to get dark at around 8:40pm.  As I was planning on a sub 24 hour finish this year, so my planned daytime 6:29pm finish, was now likely to be 10:29pm.  The now expected 10:29pm finish, and not 11:29pm finish, was due to the last section of the course being changed to avoid the last, and probably the toughest, climb.  So likely to result in the race course being an hour quicker.  Looking back now, I should have really given more thought and focus to what this five hour delay would mean to my expectations of what I would encounter during the race, but at the time I didn't!  One thing I did notice as a result of the delayed start was that I didn't know what to do with myself!  There was just a rather negative feeling of just waiting, wanting it to be 9pm, when we would head into Chamonix, and finally get ready for my key race of the year.
Back in 2009, I had my family, i.e. my wife Frances, and our two boys Robert and Chris, out in France supporting me, in addition to a Kiwi mate, Kim, who had travelled from Austria, where he now lives, to cheer me on.  This year the family stayed at home in the UK, but Kim was again going to cheer me on, especially during the night in Courmayeur, where I found it really beneficial seeing a familiar face, and having a brief chat with him at around 5am in the morning back in 2009.  So come 9pm, I headed to Chamonix, where I first dropped off my bag with spare clothing, shoes, food etc. which is taken to Courmayeur, and then headed to a bar close to the start line to get out of the heavy rain.  By this time it is a little after 10pm so still around 90 minutes to the start.  Although I was sitting with Kim and the runners from the Alpine-Oasis running camp, I found that I wasn't really 'buzzing', and therefore not that talkative.  In fact I found that I was comparing this year to two years ago, in terms of how two years ago it was a warm, sunny evening, with the streets absolutely packed with a real excitement in the air.  Tonight, it was not the same 'buzz', just a feeling of waiting for the start! 

As we waited, Kim, who I have known for nearly 30 years from when we both ran for Hutt Valley Harriers back in the eighties, and I chatted a bit about the UTMB race and my racing this year and in the past.  We spoke about my good performance at the IAU Worlds in Ireland, being the first GB finisher, which naturally led us to speculate about what place I would finish and what GB finisher I would be tonight at UTMB. So I found myself starting to think of the destination, i.e. how good it would be to finish in 'so and so' position, instead of concentrating on the journey, i.e. the actual process of running through the night, amongst the amazing scenery, the different climbs and checkpoints etc.  Although it is useful to have race goals, the goals can only really be time goals as you can not determine who turns up and how they run.  I had spent some time working out likely times at each checkpoint, but during the actual ultra trail race I try not to focus on these, the checkpoint times are for the preparation stage only, rather than getting too 'hung up' over whether a few minutes fast or down on schedule.  But here I was now just focusing on the finish, thinking about my finish place and time, rather than looking forward to the actual running of the race.

As I had been given an elite race number, I did not need to worry about going to the start line early in order to get a good starting position as the elite runners have a separate roped off area at the front of the crowds.  I therefore waited until around 20 minutes before the start to head to this roped off area.  Just prior to heading to the start line, I was in two minds on whether to put on an extra layer, or whether to put it in my back pack, just in case it got really cold up at 2500 metres.  I didn't want to carry the extra weight all the way to Courmayeur if I didn't need it, but then I didn't want to get too cold.  In the end I decided I didn't need it, but the indecision did 'play a bit' on my mind!

Finally I am off to the start line, however, I couldn't find where to show my elite number in order to gain access to the front of the runners.  I therefore had to squeeze my way through the crowds from the side and then climb over the barriers to access the elite area.  Although something like this may seem rather petty, reflecting back now it did have an impact.  It was a bit like when I entered the Elite BBQ party on the Tuesday night, a feeling of not belonging here!!!  So here I am, 15 minutes to start time and it is pouring down.  I am standing next to Liz Hawker (yellow jacket), and see that she has her number on the outside of her jacket.  Still having this feeling that I am an 'imposter' who has climbed over the barriers, I unzip my jacket to display my elite number, as if to prove that I belong here.  Thinking back now, it just shows that my mind was not in a 'good space'.  Take a look at the photo below, does this look like someone who is absolutely buzzing, really enjoying the current moment, excited by the prospect of running the most amazing ultra trail race in the whole World???  I think not!

While standing in the rain, waiting for the start, I knew I wasn't feeling right, so I tried to relax and simply enjoy the moment.  I had a brief exchange of expressions with Liz Hawker, a brief chat with a chap from Hungary (Oliver in orange with head torch behind Liz) who I had met at the BBQ, and then just before the start, I noticed Jez standing nearby, so I wished him luck, and then we were off!  My race plan was too start at a solid pace.  Obviously not 'As fast as you can, while you can' as it is a 24 hour race, but the intention was to be near the front as long as the pace wasn't too quick. 

Below are two links to videos of the start on YouTube where I am visible near the front, wearing a bright yellow Montane jacket. I am visible at 2mins 36ses into the video. 

Also   I am visible at 48 secs into the video, and around 100 metres after the start, shown below.

A few runners zoom off for the first few hundred metres, but on the whole it felt pretty 'cruisey', probably around 6min 40 sec mile pace, although hard to really gauge it due to being dark and extremely wet!  Interestingly initially Killian Jornet, two times winner and strong favourite for the race was nowhere to be seen.  He then comes pretty well sprinting past, gains a lead of around 60 metres, nobody followed him, and then started jogging until the lead group re-caught him.  It was pretty clear immediately then that everyone was pretty well running for second.  The lead group pretty well followed his move.  When he slowed down, the group slowed down.  Likewise when he sped up.  After around a mile and a half on roads, we join a trail that runs alongside the river.  The second video clip show the leaders at the start of this track.  I can be clearly seen as the third runner, as I am the only runner carrying a hand torch as well as my head torch.  At this point of the race I am feeling fine, happy to be near the front without that much effort.  The track undulates a wee bit before we enter the first drink station at Les Houches at the 7.9km mark, so without realising it a small group of around eight runners, including myself has separated slightly from the rest of the field.
Shortly after the drink station we start the first of now only nine climbs, around 760 vertical metres.  My plan was to slowly let runners overtake me going up this first climb, before finding my natural position in the field, at a slightly raised intensity, which I would then hold onto for the remainder of the climb, down into the first town of St Gervais, and then along the valley through Les Contamines, before climb number two, where I would then settle down to a 'proper' pace for a 24 hour race.
As I began the climb I noticed that runners were passing me at quite a rate.  I therefore upped the intensity a bit to try to reduce the rate at which they passed me, so I was probably working a little bit harder than I had planned to.  What was also different to what I had visualised was that it was dark and very wet!  Whilst running steadily up the first climb that lasted about 50 - 55 minutes I seemed to keep on thinking back to two years ago, a beautiful balmy night, with amazing views of the surround mountains, rather than focus on the present moment.  Tonight, it was pitch black, not only could I not see any of the surrounding mountains, I also found that I lost contact quite easily with the runners going past me.  Whereas if it was daylight, they would slowly move away from me, but still be in visual contact.  Tonight they were getting out of visual contact quite quickly due to the dark, which reflecting back now, made me feel as if I was going significantly slower than them, although in reality I probably wasn't.  In addition, I couldn't get a feeling from the runners going past.  I couldn't see their faces, sense their expressions, identify just how hard they were working.  So all I had was a feeling that I was going backwards, and everyone else was simply cruising!
As I mentioned earlier, this post is not about trying to make excuses, but about understanding what went wrong.  Yes, it could be concluded that I was foolish starting out too fast, and going backwards was what I deserved for this stupid start fast.  However, I have used a quick start many times before in ultra races, with the IAU Worlds at Connemara, and the Lakeland 100 in 2010, being two extremes where I went ridiculously fast!  However, on both of these occasions I was rewarded with a really positive buzz.  I was leading at the Lakeland 100, and I was well up near the front, and the leading UK runner at the Worlds.  But tonight, in the wet and dark of the UTMB, I couldn't even see how far behind from the front I was, what position I was in, and was unable to recognise who had overtaken me.  Totally, totally different to the Worlds in Connemara, where I slowly drifted down through the field going up Diamond Hill before settling into a steady position, and probably more significant, totally different to my extensive UTMB race preparation/visualisation I had carried out!
The first climb varies in gradient, so it is a mixture of running and 'power hiking'.  One key feature I remembered from UTMB 2009 was just how hard all of the runners attack the first climb.  For all of the other nine climbs, for the same percentage gradient, I doubt any of the runners, apart form maybe the very front would be running.  But for the first climb, for the position I am running at within the field, there is substantially loads more running than walking.  I had prepared for quite a high intensity up the first climb, so physically all was going to plan, but in terms of my mental state, so far this wasn't quite going to plan, just like on the start line, I was not experiencing the usual level of excitement/joy.
As the climb progresses, although not able to recognise any faces, I'm not sure how far up the climb, but I do notice Liz Hawker go past me.  Back in 2009 Liz finished not too far ahead of me in 18th place, compared to my 22nd.  So with a planned improvement in my finishing time for 2011, I was expecting to finish ahead of her.  As she ran past I attempted to stay with her, but there is a limit to just how much one should go 'out beyond the comfort zone' as after all it is a 24 hour race, so I simply had to let her run past, and due to the dark she was pretty well immediately out of sight, which further subtracted from my already less than usual level of positivity!
I guess we must have been around seven/eighths of the way up the climb, as I slowed slightly to consume my second gel of the night, when I hear a friendly hello from Jez Bragg.  Knowing that Jez usually tends to start rather conservatively I was expecting to be ahead of him during the first stages, but I had expected that it would not be until after St Gervais (21km), or even after Les Contamines (31km) before we would be running together.  So seeing him so early on was further disappointment!
Having just re-read the above few paragraph, again it could be concluded that all of my less than positive experiences I have outlined are simply due to me having unrealistic expectations of my ability, and simply starting too fast beyond what I am capable of!   But as I highlighted above, I had felt that my preparation, both mentally and physically had gone really well, including my last two races, so there was some substance, some evidence for expecting a high performance.  Possibly, maybe my expectations may have been too high, but I have learnt over 30+ years of endurance running that one's performances are largely set by their expectations.  For 30 years I limited my performances due to my rather limited self expectations.  Over the last three or so years, I have raised my expectations, and I believe not un-realistically.  If you had asked me four years ago "Would I be running for Great Britain at World Championships at the age of 48, beating guys that can run 29 minutes for 10km and 50 minutes for 10 miles?"  I would have 100 percent told you, don't be ridiculous, totally not possible based on my previous 30 years of running.  But then, what happened??  Well it happened!!!  How?  Simply due to heightened self expectations, as simple as that!!!  But the number one thing that has also accompanied the heightened self expectations over the last three years, has been the positivity, the excitement, the joy, simply the 'buzz' of running the best I had ever ran.  But here tonight, up this first climb, I just wasn't experiencing that 'buzz', so I was finding it difficult to run to my self expectation!
The results later show that I am the 31st runner to reach the top of the climb at Le Delevret in a time of 1:25:30, although I had no idea at the time due to the darkness of what position I was in.  Although, I was aiming for a 23:59 finish, I speculated that this finsih time would be around the 15th place for 2011.  Being quite a bit lower down the field than the seventh the same time would have been in 2009, due to the improved quality of the field.  (It later turns out that 23:59 would have been eighth place this year, but this is mainly a result of the huge numbers of runners of all abilities, including many of the top runners, not getting to the finish this year!)  Anyway, back to the race.  At the top of the climb, I am only 23 seconds behind Jez, and fortunately I can still visually see him.  (As a side note, the results also show that Liz was the 15th runner to the top in 1:21:01, so during the climb I had lost four and a half minutes to her.  Considering I wasn't really taking it easy up the climb, this level of performance by Liz, just shows what an absolutely amazing athlete she is.  It would be great to chat to her about how high her intensity is up this first climb.)
As we begin a rather lengthy and at times slippery descent down to the French village of St Gervais, it only takes a few minutes to gain the 23 seconds back up to Jez.  Now if I was my usual self I typically would have gone straight past Jez, as I have found that my descending is far superior to his.  However, tonight as I was still feeling rather negative about how hard I had to work up the first climb, largely due to the darkness making it feel like runners were simply 'leaving me for dead', I decided that I would use this opportunity to simply cruise behind Jez, and take it easy, to 'recover' from my perceived over exertion so far during the race.  So I simply do that, I switch out of 'race mode', and go into 'follow mode'.  Although we aren't actually going at too slow a pace and manage to overtake a few runners, so enter the next feed station at 21km together in 2:04:43 in 24th and 25th place.  Liz had passed through in 16th place in 2:00:59, so I had actually gained 45 seconds up on Liz during the descent.  Maybe if I had known this on the night, it would have given me a real boost, as believe it or not, although I had entered the checkpoint alongside Britain's top ultra runner, I was not thinking that I was performing well.  I didn't know what place I was in.  I didn't know that I had just gained time on runners ahead.  At that moment in time, it felt like I had 'lost' time by simply following Jez.  The crowds at St Gervais, were also absolutely nothing like what they were compared to 2009.  Which as you would expect, being 1:30am in the morning, and being rather wet and cold, there just wasn't the same street carnival atmosphere from 2009!

  At the feed station at St Gervais

Re-reading what I have just written, it surprises me that there is such a strong focus on my race performance, my position relative to others, relative to Jez, etc.  Usually during ultra trail races, I do not have this race position focus.  The focus usually is on 'the present moment', on the surrounding environment, on the actual enjoyment at that moment in time.  And the final race position just seems to 'look after itself'.  So it is surprising that it was so different for this race.  Reflecting back now, I think that it was maybe because at that present moment, it wasn't that enjoyable.  It was dark, wet, cold, no scenery.  I know this sounds a bit 'pitiful', as if I am only a warm sunny daytime runner.  As my mate Kim pointed out to me following the race; Killian Jornet didn't find the darkness, rain and cold a problem!  And that is totally true.  However, in the past I have never found rain. cold, night time to be a problem.  The Hardmoors 55 back in March 2010 is a prime example.  For those runners that ran that day, you will recall that not very often would one find tougher, wetter, colder conditions.  I didn't get negative then, so what was so different at UTMB 2011?

I think maybe the key problem is that I had run the UTMB in 2009, in fantastic conditions.  So although in my preparation I was telling/convincing myself that the weather could be bad, especially after the conditions of 2010.  The memories of 2009 seemed to override the messages I was trying to tell myself.  The actual visual memory from 2009 was dominating my visualisation.  Whereas for races that you haven't competed in before, such as Hardmoors 55, there isn't the same clear memories to override the preparations of what you could possible encounter during the event.  And the delayed start by 5 hours, altering the first climb and the St Gervais experience, further resulted in the actual race experience being quite different to what I had prepared for.  All of these different experiences, all within the first two hours of the race, just made the actual race experience that much more demanding, and seems to have contributed quite significantly to creating a negative response.
I leave St Gervais, running at a steady pace, ready to up it a bit after my perception of 'taking it easy' on the descent.  Jez and another runner are following me, and I am beginning to think, okay, lets get this race 'back on track'.  There is a small bit of road, before we rejoin a single track that mainly follows the river, but with the occasional steep excursion thrown in.  I guess I lead Jez and the other runner for around ten minutes, and then find that I am not feeling that comfortable, so decide to run in behind.  I probably run behind the two of them for probably another ten - fifteen minutes before I find the pace just too quick, bearing in mind it is a 24 hour event.  I had hoped to maintain a slightly higher intensity right through to the start of the second climb, at Notre Dame Gorge at the 35km mark, so having to ease off, and let Jez go, so early on, was disappointing.  Again, really surprising this obsessive focus on race position, rather than the actual journey, the actual enjoyment of running at that moment in time.
So two and half hours into the race, I am running totally alone.  It feels like I am running slower that I would expect at this stage of the race, so there is an overriding feeling of disappointment.  Shortly before we reach the checkpoint at Les Contamines (31km) I am running over ground that I had run over earlier in the week.  There is a short climb up from the river up to the road at the entrance to the village, and I get a double whammy of negativity!  Not only am I walking up this short climb, which I jogged up earlier in the week absolutely cruising, I am also overtaken, by a group of around six runners.  Straight past me as I walk up this pathetic, hardly steep at all, short climb.
I enter the checkpoint at Les Contamines, and am greeted by some huge support form the Alpine-Oasis runners.  This is a real boost, exactly what I need at this moment in time.  I had mentioned to the group that I would be at the checkpoint at 2:40am, and the time is 2:39am, so I am bang on schedule, another pleasing boost.  But for some reason, I choose to ignore these two sources of positivity, and tend to focus more on the negative feeling I had immediately prior to Les Contamines, absolutely 'creeping' up the small climb, and being overtaken by the group of six runners.  The results show that my time at Les Contamines was 3:10:51 (the race started at 11:29), now in 33rd place.  Jez had passed through 3 minutes 21 seconds earlier, although I didn't know that at the time, so I had lost a little over three minutes to Jez in the 40 minutes or so since he left me. 
The next section of the race, is probably where the biggest source of negativity arose.  It was a four kilometre, pretty well flat section up to the start of the second climb at Notre Dame Gorge.  I had run this section twice during the week, with once being really cruisey with the Alpine-Oasis running group.  Tonight, I was finding it really difficult to keep a decent pace going, and it definitely felt as if I was going quite a bit slower that the cruisey pace I had run with the running camp group, and I was meant to be currently racing!  As I approach Notre Dame Gorge, I find myself again remembering back to 2009, with a very clear recollection of the amazing atmosphere that was present two years ago.  The Gorge is an ancient Roman road, so goes straight up at quite a gradient.  Back in 2009, running up this half-mile section it was a bit like the Tour de France.  You would look ahead, and the path was totally blocked with screaming spectators, and then they would simply part as you approached.  Probably, the most amazing memory for me of the 2009 race.  And yes as you have gathered, again tonight, another disappointment, nothing like 2009!
Again reading what I have typed, it makes me sound like a rather 'wimpish' runner, that 'packs a sad' just because his visualisations before the race don't match up with the reality of the actual race in that it was dark when it should have been light, or that it was wet and cold, or simply because there is not the same spectator support.  Yes, I know it seems pretty feeble, but having reflected quite a bit over how I felt during this year's race over the last two weeks, what I have typed above, is exactly how I was feeling at the time.  For the last three years of running ultra trail races, I have pretty well been on a non-stop high.  Apart from the occasional going off course, everything has pretty well gone to plan, and I have performed exceptionally well, especially in relation to my previous 30 years of running.  But I have always known that I am an 'occasion' runner.  I run on excitement, I perform due to enjoyment.  If I am happy and enjoying the running, I then perform, that then makes be happier, more positive, which then leads to better performances, more happiness etc.  It has been a continuous upward spiral.
I think I have made it reasonably clear within my report so far, that during this year's UTMB, not exactly sure what started the downward direction, probably from te moment the race start was delayed, but I was definitely experiencing a downward spiral, that although I was aware of it happening, I was unable to break out of it!  I therefore struggled up the first climb to La Balme, dropping now down to 40th place at 4:22:26, and then at the top of the second climb at Refuge Croix du Bonholme (45km) I had been overtaken by more runners so now in 52nd place in 5:41:03.  At the top there is loads of snow about, however, it is a clear sky as the rain had stopped shortly before Les Contamines.  Still pretty chilly though, as there is quite a strong breeze.
It is good to get out of the wind and to make a rapid descent down to the next feed station at Les Champieux (50km).  I realise that the coldness has probably increased my carbohydrate consumption so I decide that a more lengthy stop is required in order to take on plenty of fuel, and to warm up fully.  By this time, I have become disinterested in how many runners overtake me, and just hope that I can get my race 'back into the positive' after the checkpoint.
I head off, still in the dark at a pretty cautious pace.  There is some initial gentle climbs along road, and then four wheel drive track before starting extensive zig -zags up to Col De La Seigne, around 1000 vertical metres higher than the feed station.  I am holding my own amongst the runners around me, and for probably the first time in the race since the very first few miles, I am feeling positive again.  I am thinking, great, back to my usual self.  This coincides with it getting light, so it is a nice surprise to be able to recognise the terrain that I had run over in the dark two years earlier. 
But what happens over the next section, is hard to describe.  Whether it was failing to take on enough food during this long climb up to 2516 metres. or whether it was getting cold again with the wind and the drop in temperature at the high altitude, or whether it was that I was too ready to accept that the whole race would be a negative experience, as the first few hours had been, I just do not know. During around the last half hour of the climb I slow significantly, no longer holding my own with the surrounding runners/  I only lose a few places, but begin to feel really weak in the head.  I get over the top, results show now in 59th place, and start heading down to the next feed station at Lac Combal.  The further down I go, the worse I feel.  There is a combination of weakness in the head, a strong sense of tiredness, whilst at the same time a weakness in the legs.  It feels like my legs are getting a real battering from the descent.  Then to top it all off, I start focusing on this pounding my legs are getting, and giving this attention magnifies immensely the negative experience.  So I am beginning to 'suffer' from all directions.
Now, during my last few years of racing I have found that I have hardly ever 'suffered' during a race.  I have had one or two short 'blips', which I have usually got through, but I would say the remainder of the time I have not 'suffered'.  I don not use the term suffering, I do not associate with that term, or that experience.  At times the race gets challenging, but that is what I enjoy about racing, responding to the challenge.  So here I was coming down this descent, after not even nine hours of running, and feeling as though I was suffering.  A new experience, far, far away from the positivity and joy I usually experience.  As I get nearer to the checkpoint, the situation somehow gets so 'bad' that I am reduced to walking, on a reasonably gentle downward gradient.  I just can't believe it, I just can't understand what has happened, why I am feeling so negative!  I eventually walk into the feed point, and I know at that moment in time, my race is over for the day.  The disappointment is huge.  Hard to exactly remember the feeling at that moment, but I do recall that I didn't really put up much of a battle to counteract the decision that I would voluntarily pull out of a race, for the first time in 26 years, since way back in 1985.  And I have raced literally hundreds of races since then.  So pulling out was just something I did not do.  So it still surprises me now, just how easy I was to accept pulling out at that moment in time.
Just after I have come to this decision, Richie Cunningham , who I have raced on a number of occasions, enters the feed station.  At that exact moment, knowing that I wasn't going to finish, I did not want to see anyone I knew.  I pretty well just wanted to hide.  I wanted to get out of the race.  Richie senses that I am in a bit of a 'sad state' so does his best to encourage me.  Thanks Richie, for your encouragement, just a pity you hadn't caught me up 30 minutes earlier, maybe with your encouragement then, I may have got through my amazing bout of negativity, before deciding to 'call it quits'!  Richie, well done on your achievement, for 'battling' it out through to the finish.  A fantastic accomplishment finishing in 47th place.

So having accepted that my race was over, after a pretty lengthy stop at the checkpoint I started walking towards Courmayeur.  It was only 13 kilometres and one smallish climb (around 450 vertical metres) away, and where I can be picked up by my mate Kim.  I get into a slow jog, but the moment I start the climb, it is back to quite a slow walk.  Going up the climb of Arete Mont-Favre runners pass me, but surprisingly not that many.  I pass the checkpoint at the top, the results show now in 96th place. 

There is then a very long descent to Courmayeur, losing over 1200 vertical metres of elevation.  The first section is only gently downhill so not too bad.  The last 4 kilometres after Col Chercrouit, consists of very steep zig-zags.  As before during the descent to Lac Combal, I seem to be obsessed by the discomfort within my legs.  Every step down feels very uncomfortable, again I am reduced to walking down the hill.  At least this hill was steep.  Having earlier decided that I would pull out at Cournmayeur I am running within an expressionless state.  I feel really 'down', and even though it is now warm, the sun is out, and there is fantastic mountains surrounding me, I do not actual notice any of this.  All I am thinking is that I want this unpleasant experience to be over.  If ever a run could be un-enjoyable, the 13km, only 8 miles, from Lac Combal to Courmayeur, that took me 2 hours and 37 minutes to complete, would have to be right up there amongst my most unenjoyable runs ever.  Fortunately, during this time there was such a feeling of emptiness, that I don't have any strong memories of this section at all!

So that is it!  I get to the large sports centre at Courmayeur, retrieve my drop bag, run through the centre and inform the marshals that I am not continuing.  There is just a feeling of emptiness.  No tears, no sadness, no anger, just emptiness, and I guess also a bit of bewilderment.  How could it all go so wrong?  It feels a bit like I haven't actually experienced the race at all, as if I was off somewhere else, somewhere distant, not actually present during the last eleven hours, especially the last three hours!

Well, having typed the above, I have a feeling of relief.  For the last two weeks I have being thinking about the race.  Should I have put on more clothing?  Should I have started off slower?  Should I have spent longer at the feed stations taking on more fuel, more positive energy?  Should I have been less 'hung up' about my finishing time and position?  Should I have stopped on the long climb to Col De Seigne and extensively fuelled up there rather than waiting until the next feed station, by which time, the end was near? Should I have not given in and accepted so easily pulling out?  Should I have simply had an hour off at Courmayeur and then continued, as if a new race, a new day?  Yes, many questions that have been needing answering.  Have I answered them, no not entirely, but I am now more comfortable with what happened, and am comfortable in the philosophy that I always possess "Everything happens for a reason!"  Yes, I now have this feeling of relief.  I can now move on, and return back to the pleasure I get from running, just simply running. 

Just to conclude, the actual race was very disappointing, however, the rest of my time in France was great.  The build up in Les Contamines prior to the race was excellent, and again, thanks to everyone involved in the Alpine-Oasis running camp.  Thanks for the positive energy.  Yes, the actual race, was quite an unenjoyable experience, but if ultra trail running wasn't a challenge, it wouldn't be worth doing!

As I finish this race report, it is nearly exactly two weeks since the start of the race in Chamonix.  Although, the above race report probably comes across as a bit 'over the top', and also over dramatised, as after all it is only a running race.  The fact that my reflections have come across as being as dramatic/even as sensationalised as they read, in terms of this lack of enjoyment, the suffering, the emptiness, the disappointment.  This is because I do tend to spend quite a bit of my time giving thought to running.  Running gives me immense pleasure, satisfaction, excitement.  So for the UTMB 2011 experience to then provide me with the opposite feelings, it has been quite a shock!

Looking at the results for this year's UTMB, out of the 2360 starters, 1227 of them, over 52% of the starters had the same result, a DNF!  This percentage of non finishers was significantly higher that the 40% dropout rate from 2009 and 2008.  Maybe the delayed start and the wet and cold conditions affected many other runners to the same extent as it affected me.  The spread of DNFs was throughout the field, including many of the elite including Jez, Scott Jurek, Krissy Moehl (2009 womens winner), Geoff Roes (2010 Western States winner) and Nick Clark (a Brit that lives in USA).  There were also many other British running friends who like me, DNFed, including Andy Mouncey, Nick Ham and Andy Cole.  No doubt, each and every person that dropped out has their own unique experience of why the 2011 UTMB did not result in a successful completion.  Hopefully we will all have learnt something from the experience, to take us forward as we continue to gain tremendous enjoyment and satisfaction from ultra trail running for many years to come.  One thing I know for sure, I have not finished with UTMB, I will return!

To sign off from this rather lengthy, but important and necessary race report post, Nick Clark's summary of what went wrong for him feels quite familiar: 
"As anyone who has raced an endurance event knows, especially one as demanding as a mountain 100-miler, there is a very strong connection between the performance of the mind and the performance of the body. A huge part of being successful in completing these events is an understanding of what lies in front of you. Your mind prepares your body, and your body delivers an output that is sustainable for the mileage and elevation change that remains. If the mind is checked out, the body follows. ... When I finally did make it up to the pass .... I had lost the mental fortitude to keep my legs from seizing up and the decision to drop was an easy one." Nick Clark, 2011.
To everyone that ran UTMB and the associated races, may you all have gained from your experience, no matter what the result. 

If you have managed to persevere, and get to the finish of this blog post, well done.  Hopefully, getting to the end of this post has been as worthwhile for you,as it has been for me!



  1. I wonder if lack of mountain running experience accounts for a lot of the DNFs this year. I know a few of the higher placed uk runners are fell/mountain runners so are used to training on mountains in bad weather and from a psychological point of view would be more at ease?

  2. Stu, fascinating insight. I myself feel like a bit of a fraud for commenting on your performance but I feel it is important to acknowledge your efforts.

    I don't think it is possible to over-dramatise your perceptions because these type of emotions are exactly what many of us seek when putting ourselves to the mercy of ultra running. Granted though, we often don't get what we expect.

    I'll give you an example which I hope adds to your thoughts; I ran the fling this year. I went into it with no expectations but more importantly huge amounts of negative energy. I was injured, ill and unfit (by my own standards) but was still determined to have a go. From about the 2nd hour onwards I suffered.

    Perhaps I didn't give up because I had no expectations? And to be honest this concerns me - because how will I get on in future - when I have expectations?

    I hope you are able to put this horrible affair behind you, and hopefully from a selfish point of view, your investigations into these issues will uncover some great pieces of information; to compliment the many you have already shared with us.

  3. Bill makes a very good point, the top 3 all train and to some degree live in the mountains and this period of training exposes them to the terrain but more importantly the environment and the ability to tune in.

    It is this ability to tune in which I'll refer back to that I believe makes all the difference.

    Training is just that and it is during this period you need to build your confidence and physical ability. This is the time to build mental strength and grow and in that respect I agree 100% with your model.

    once this is achieved you have the physical and mental tools to perform on race day but you also need to have these set to auto so that you can trust without thought. I see it like the auto neuro response that makes your heart beat - you don't give it thought you just trust it will happen.
    The secret, in my view, is on race day to be able to forget everything (trust the heart will beat) but tuning into the environment that nature throws your way and flow with it and thus enjoy it (vital).

    Going in to a race trying to maintain all these other important mental aspects is in itself a unseen source of negativity waiting to strike at the first sign of weakness.
    By learning how to trust you can forget all of this and come race day with this removed focus only on enjoying which may be a quality we all need to train in light of the stresses of life.

    Kilian described it well as enjoying the ambiance of the event, he described it like a game. I like that term 'a game' because when a child plays a game he only plays because it is a source of enjoyment. He seems to be able to flow and allow the mountain and the journey to vitalise him.

    I believe we can all 'mentally horde' without realising it and maybe all this preparation is taking away from what matters. Maybe we can forget to trust and not separate training from the joy of racing.
    Training = build the physical off the mental
    Race Day = Trust and enjoy

    Not sure if that makes any sense but lessons I'm learning from my own experiences.

  4. Really interesting stuff Stuart, thanks for going into the detail. While I don't buy into all your ideas I'm certainly coming round to the view that it's the negative doubts that get into our brain that eventually nag us into defeat if that's the way it's going to be that day. Looking back over the past few years, I think I can tell quite early on in an event whether it's going to feel good or not. If it's not, then I have to make a decision whether to tough it out (as I did like you in the 2010 Hardmoors 55, or this year's WHW when I finished but in a very poor time) or let it get to me which I think it probably did in this year's TMB. Length is important of course, it's much harder to hang in over a mountainous 100 miler than an event which you're going to finish in many fewer hours. I admire the guys who can suffer for long periods, but it's not for me. I do this stuff for fun, and when it stops feeling good (and there is a real difference between having to work hard but satisfyingly for long periods and feeling bad about the whole thing) I find it very hard to continue, and I suspect you may have a similar feeling. I'm coming to the conclusion that to feel comfortable I have to go into events feeling that I have a good cushion of ability over and above what the event demands just to finish; then if conditions are favourable I can push the time, and if not I have some reserve to fight a bit without it feeling like a real trial.

  5. Stuart, I was one of the luck few that finished, albeit that it took me 42.5 hours. I have taken lot from your posts in the past and agree with the whole mental approach. If you read my two recent posts on my own blog "runningdad" you will see a lot of similiarities with your own approach. I admire your honest and open approach and am sure you will experience your running joy once again!

  6. Hi Stuart,
    I have read your Blog for a while now, and I agree with your ideas on the mental and the physical working together, but not on the run as fast as you can whilst you can. I also ran the UTMB this year finishing in 29 hrs 29. My plan to finish just as it got dark was scuppered by the delayed start, and this meant more dark hours for me. But prior to the race I adjusted my plan A , B and C so that I had a realistic target. Did you have a plan B? Then when the race started I almost forgot about all of them and just ran how I felt, but always on the side of caution due to the weather. I always wanted a bit in reserve, just in case it got really bad.
    From what I can gather from your posts I get the feeling that you got caught up with the idea of feeling out of place with the elite runners. You shouldn’t have as you are clearly a class runner. But I think that it interfered with the ability for you to run your own race. I personally think that it is too long a race, to race other competitors until near the end. It is much better to run against the clock (or the sun / light) to get the best out of yourself, and much less stressful. If feeling good near the end I would then open up and race other competitors. My plan was to run at a conservative push effort level. I finished the race thinking I left a bit on the course, but after only discovering the extended route whilst on it, I felt that I had to be cautious from then until back on the familiar course.
    I think a big part of training is getting to understand the cadence that you can sustain for the duration of the run. But to carry this out in a race I believe you have to ignore those around you and run to the cadence that feels right. I had plenty of people to ignore as I was 850th at Delevret, and I didn’t get speared by a pole too (no poles for me). It is probably easier to calculate this if you run on long routes on that type of terrain, at that altitude, all the time, as Killian does.
    I’m sure that you will be an even stronger runner for this tough experience.

  7. I completed this 2011 UTMB and it was with out doubt the most Epic run of my life. I have some expiriance in Ultra, desert, multi day events and previous 100 mile races but the UTMB... I'm still trying to figure out what it took from me and what it gave me....without doubt the race of my life.

    We can not be measured by our success but in our readyness to challange and explore the world and ourselves. The100man