The days leading up to the Thursday morning start of the OCC, a trail race that took us through the Alps from Switzerland to France, I was a bit of a sandbagging mess. The original plan called for the group of Columbia runners to stick together. I was cool with that, yay friends! Then I met Colin and Landon and realized just how massive their calves and quads were. Um. Yea. I couldn’t keep up with those mountain legs! Even with a summer dedicated to running instead of studying it’d be a gamble. So I freaked out. Hourly. Until they finally told me I could run my own race. They say it was to calm me down, but I think they were just terrified of having to put up with me for 10 hours!
As soon as I got the go ahead to run my own race things were peachy. I spent an hour Wednesday afternoon packing up all the UTMB/OCC required gear, a healthy pile of go-to race food and taped up my cranky shins. [yes, out of no where both shins were cranky and tight, grr] I was as ready as I was going to get. I wasn’t worried about the distance, but the perceived pressure to have only a great day on the trails was a bit overwhelming. While falling asleep Wednesday night I finally found my race mojo — I got excited to spend the day chasing down aid stations and thanking volunteers/spectators. Hands down, that’s the best part of racing!
Even though the race didn’t start until 8:15am we were out the door at 5am, boarding buses to Orsieres, Switzerland where the race started. When we arrived it was a bit overwhelming — it didn’t feel anything like an ultra race, there were so many people everywhere and we were in the middle of a rather large city. It felt a lot more like a road race, but without the long rows of portapotties that are common in the US. Instead, we waited an hour in a line to get access to one of about six actual bathrooms in the city. It left a bit to be desired, but we were there early with little else to do. [although, the guys who were not pee-shy go to pee in this “open air” urinal set up, I was jealous]
At 7:45am the announcements started with translations throughout the morning until the alphorn [aka, Ricola horn, aka, traditional Swiss horn] announced the race start at 8:15am. We were off running…but not really. With 1,200 runners weaving through the narrow streets of a Swiss town it was not a fast start. But that’s okay — it gave me all the more time to really enjoy the amazing chaos! Children lined the streets with their hands outstretched, just waiting for runners to return their high-fives. Literally hundreds of children sent us off on our way through Orsieres, it was incredible! Even the middle + high school kids were out yelling for us. Who cares if this epic trail race started out like a road race…it was awesome!
When we left town we started uphill, as would be the pattern of the race [and basically the entire Tour du Mont Blanc trail] — climb out of a valley town, get amazing views, descent into a city in another valley.
There was no running these hills so we all settled into this a power hike of sorts…with trekking poles flying everywhere. I did not have much of an opinion on trekking poles in races, until I ran a race dominated by these sticks. Once the race thins out they are no problem, but in the first 4 miles of the race I hated the stupid sticks! I kept getting smacked or tripped or stabbed by them. There is a chance I am not very good at hiking uphill in a crowd full of trekking poles…it could be me, but I’m fairly certain it’s the person toting along the trekking poles. It’s easy to forget that there is a 3 foot stick protruding from your hand when you go to adjust your pack and somehow that stick was fantastic at finding my shins or toes or kneecaps. I spent my entire race avoiding people with sticks, because getting hit with sticks hurts! I see how they are helpful, but in the early crowds of the race they were terrible!
Our first aid station/check point stop was just outside of Champex, Switzerland — about half way up our first long climb. The aid station was in a big tent and it was chaotic. It was a free for all with getting water or soda and if you needed a handheld or pack refilled with water you had to wait in a line 5+ deep. At this point Landon and Colin were just a few runners ahead of me, but I ducked into a bathroom and never saw them again. That was probably the best mid-race decision I made, it meant I could truly run my own race for the rest of the day.
Outside of Champex our climb continued on with little reprieve. We spread out into long lines of hikers wearing running packs + bibs as we took on the climbs. It varied from steep, short switchbacks to long, winding trails…always going up. Eventually we crested a small hill to the sound of cowbells. My first thought was “yay, people!” but it was literally just a field of cows, with cowbells. No joke. The Swiss cows had massive bells around their necks and when they walked or shook their heads at flies they would ring, creating a cacophony of noisy music. It was incredible. [yes, I know I’m overusing that word but the entire experience was incredible!]
After a climb that seemed to go on forever we dropped into the La Giete check point where I refilled my handheld and said hello to the Columbia crew before taking off down the mountain. Drew, the cameraman-turned-trail-runner was rocking at life! I cannot wait to see the footage he got — we spent a solid half mile leap frogging each other down the mountain, his camera on the entire time. I was impressed; it was a steep, technical descent and he survived unscathed.
Unfortunately for the rest of the world, there were no cameras around when I gracefully slid, then rolled, down the mountainside. I had a GoPro snapped to my chest for the entire race but for my very first trail run tumble it was turned off…and I didn’t just kurplunk onto the trail. Nooo…I actually rolled off the trail and a poor French runner had to drag me back up onto the trail. At least I have a cut palm and bruised knee to prove it!
Even with the fall I had a lot of run dropping down into Trient, the first full aid station at 23km/14mi, where I discovered just how delicious salami is when you’re mid-race. I filled up on broth, salami, cheese and bread knowing I’d have plenty of time to digest everything on the long, steep climb out of the valley. This climb zigzagged up a mountainside then just gave up on switchbacks all together and took us straight up the mountain between two fenced cow pastures. Our next stop would be at Catogne where we got our bibs scanned then headed down the mountain for another long, winding descent. The endless switchbacks kept us from really letting loose on the downhill but it felt great to stretch the legs a bit.
When I rolled into Vallorcine I was still toting around my pile of smiles — it was an awesome day, all around. I was hot and sweaty, but the cold sponges and piles of oranges in the aid station hit the spot. After another healthy pile of cheese, salami and bread I headed out of the 35km/21mi aid station knowing I had just shy of a half marathon left.
And with that…off I went, up a mountain, again. Leaving Vallorcine we had a stretch of runnable trail that felt amazing after miles of steep ups and downs. As we popped out onto pavement after spending some time on single track I looked up and nearly tripped over my own feet — the mountain views in front of me were stunning. I must have said something out loud because the guy ahead of me slowed, looked up and literally threw his hands up in the air while exclaiming something I did not understand. It was simply amazing. The photos I took will never do it justice.
I spent the next two hours staring at this view, wondering where these mountains had come from as I climbed up, up, up another freaking mountain. Literally, it went up forever. Near the top I spotted a bench and for the first time in the race I just thunked myself down and stared out at these mountains. I wanted more of them! Also, I was getting tired of going uphill!
Eventually the uphill opened up into a big scree field and I recognized where we were — just ahead was a ski lift that brought winter skiers/riders up from Chamonix. We were almost done! As soon as I got myself up to the ski lift we’d be headed down. Down into the city, down to the finish. I watched a choppy replay of me coming into the Le Flegere check point and I look exhausted — mostly I saw the sign that said “8km down” and was busy doing math in my head. Less than 5 miles left! And all downhill!
For whatever reason I felt like I’d be rocking the downhills during this race — later I chatted with Landon + Colin and we just came to the conclusion that everyone in this race was quite cautious on the descents. Whatever, I was still excited about the descent! The pounding hurt my legs but it didn’t require a ton of cardiovascular work so I was happy. In the next 8km I chicked a lot of dudes — passing at least 20 people before I even hit the city streets of Chamonix.
— a little taste of what the descents were like: steep, rooty, rocky and twisty! —
As I came into town I was still running happy and couldn’t have been happier to see Becca getting all excited on the side of the finisher’s chute — I promised to pee my pants, just for her! Unfortunately, I wasn’t completely kidding, I’d been scoping out good places to pee for the last hour but refused to let it slow me down on my descent!
The finisher’s chute seemed to go on forever — it was at least 1km long, if not longer. I zigged and zagged through town, chasing Drew and his fancy camera for a while. It was a surreal experience. It was so unlike any ultra finish I’ve ever experienced — I was running on pavement, lined with hundreds of spectators, most of whom were speaking French. Everyone was so excited! It was just plain exciting! I ran across the finish line, happy. I wasn’t completely spent, I wasn’t broken, I wasn’t peeing or puking…I was just plain happy. I ran my own race and everything felt right!
Of course, this was probably unknown to many people at the finish line — I am terrible at finishes! Every race I’ve done the finish is the one part where I am always bad at conveying how I really feel. Mid-race I can explain in great detail how I feel. At the finish, as soon as I’m given permission to leave race-mode, I kick off my shoes and I shut down every race emotion I may have had. I still look back at races and wish I could change how I reacted at the finish, this one is no different — I was much happier than my reaction showed. Race finishes are emotional and raw, I know that…I apparently just don’t share that, ever.
— photo taken by Daniel around Mile 4, but that is the same silly grin I had plastered on my face for 10 hours! —
As for the race, overall — it was fantastic and I played every card I was dealt very well. Even with “weird” aid station food I managed to keep my nutrition on track and my hydration was spot on. My muscles kept their game face on and each time I stopped to eat in an aid station I gave the legs a little stretching TLC. I was strong on my climbs, always hiking with a purpose. I managed to fancy foot the descents without face planting [the only fall I did have was on mostly flat ground, I’m skilled like that]. I never had a chance to complain and even when I rounded a bend to stare up at more uphill my cursing was half hearted. It was a very, very solid race for me. I am proud of that. If I never race again, I’m happy with this being my final race…it was that good! All the #humblebrags but I’m really proud of how I raced!
My legs did so well on the run I took them out for 4 days of alpine hiking as a reward — they still love me. It’s weird, they like these steep mountain trails, I just need to get my cardiovascular strength + endurance back! Sounds like a great excuse to spend some time in the Alps, amirite?!