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Race Report, Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc 2015

The inky black night sky is slowly turning a lighter shade of dark above the jagged horizon of mountain tops. I walk up towards a guy with an electronic wand and let him scan the bib on my chest. Beep-beep. I’ve climbed 2 876 metres since the starting line in Chamonix and have finally reached the top of Croix du Bonhomme, around 44 km into the race that is Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc. My Suunto is showing 2.30 on Saturday morning and I am as tired as I have ever been. Roughly a quarter of the race done, both in terms of distance and climbing, and I seriously feel like quitting. The climb from Contamines has been pure hell. I dig around in the side-pocket of my running vest and find a chocolate that I try to bite down. It tastes horrible. How did I even get here?

Dad below the start/finish arch on a rainy Monday afternoon.

Dad below the start/finish arch on a rainy Monday afternoon.

Dad and I arrived in Chamonix on Monday morning, after having driven through the night from Sweden. Our flat had a fabulous view overlooking the Mont Blanc-massif and after settling in, we took our first stroll around the rainy town. Despite the bad weather, the place was packed with people milling around at the ultra expo and the souvenir stores, and the atmosphere was high with anticipation of the week to come. The next day I finally got to meet my coach Sondre Amdahl for the first time. He had guided my training via e-mail and Skype calls for the last seven months, and I had been looking forward to meeting him in person. The first thing that struck me was the same stupid thought that strikes everyone meeting a celebrity for the first time: he was shorter than I had imagined. He still had at least a good ten centimetres on me, though. The second thing that caught my eye was his steady, graceful loping gait – almost like a leopard preparing to speed up and pounce – with which he ran with me towards the La Flégère cable car. We stood together in the tightly packed sardine can of a gondola and had a coffee at the top station. Over his steaming cup, Sondre briefed me on the entire UTMB route, and explained that today we would run the final eight kilometers of the course, from La Flégère to Chamonix as a final test run before the race. This short little training run with my mentor would eventually turn out to give me an enormous boost of self-confidence five days later, during the final hour of my race. Finishing my own small espresso, I followed him out of the top station and onto the gravel track towards the forest and during that short descent I learned what separates the elite runners from the rest of us mortals: running downhill. The ease with which he flowed over rocks and roots defies description. I was suddenly embarrassed by my constant kicking up of small stones down the path. We parted ways down in Chamonix again and Sondre assured me that the race would go great – my solid training would see to that. Always nice to get a nod of approval from the boss himself. After my morning run, dad and I caught the gondola up to the dizzying heights of Aiguille du Midi (3 842 m) and even had a bit of ultra celebrity spotting (Anton Krupicka) among the views of Mont Blanc and the Chamonix valley. Wednesday saw us picking up our race bibs; dad for the OCC (Orsières – Champex – Chamonix) and I for the UTMB.

The view from Aiuguille du Midi

The view from Aiuguille du Midi

Sondre and me after our final training session.

Sondre and me after our final training session.

This isn’t a race report on dad’s race, the OCC, but I’d like to share his crew’s short version of the race anyway, since it was part of a wonderful week dad, I and later Jakob spent together. We got up early on Thursday morning and I drove dad to his 08.15-start in Orsières, Switzerland. Since his Camelpak had leaked all over the back seat of my car, we had to fill it up again in the boulangerie next to the church by the starting line. I made sure dad was properly geared up, and then headed up the road to position myself for a few photos after the start. I waved at him before he disappeared around the primary school and towards the trail leading towards Champex-Lac. I drove up the winding road to dad’s next checkpoint, and spotted him just as he emerged from the forest. I cheered him on before driving back to Chamonix to pick Jakob up at the train station. We just made it back to the halfway point at Trient (24 km) before dad showed up among the trees and ran down towards us by the checkpoint. The OCC doesn’t allow help from a runner’s crew at any checkpoint, so we had to content ourselves with verbal encouragements and photography duty. Dad didn’t look worse for wear, though, and he had cleared the cut-off time with 45 minutes to spare, so Jakob and I relaxed and walked to the car for the drive back into France and the next checkpoint at Vallorcine (34 km). After a few hours, dad crested a hill and made towards us just as we were finishing our espressos. His cut-off time margin had shrunk to 15 minutes, but this didn’t seem to worry him as much as it stressed me. Convincing dad to take only a short break, I shooed him on after his brief replenishment of his Camelpak and told him not to dawdle. Just the thing you want to hear when you’ve been running for nine hours straight. Jakob and I had dinner in Chamonix, allt the while paying close attention to the LiveTrail-reporting that told us the minute dad passed the final checkpoint at La Flégère. Dad would run the final leg after night had fallen, and I was a bit nervous that he’d have trouble running with a head torch since he had never tried it before. But I needn’t have been. Dad turned up at Chamonix all smiles and waves, and Jakob and I followed him cheering and clapping all the way to the finish arch in front of the church, Saint Bernard du Chamonix. Not only was I elated for my dad having finished the longest and toughest race of his life, but also more than a bit relieved that he had done alright and seemed to be no more tired than after a particularly strenous longrun. Dad and Jakob celebrated with Champagne into the night, but I went to bed early in anticipation of my own race the following day. My trusty old butterflies had already started to churn.

Dad reaching the first checkpoint at Champex-Lac.

Dad reaching the first checkpoint at Champex-Lac.

Dad soaking his head at the penultimate checkpoint at Vallorcine.

Dad soaking his head at the penultimate checkpoint at Vallorcine.

I have started ultra marathons at any manner of times during the day; at 4 in the morning as well as 11 in the evening. Without a doubt, I like the evening starts the best. Firstly, you get a proper nights sleep before the race, not tossing and turning before an early wake-up call (in theory, at least), and second, I can sort out my troublesome belly during the day. Running early in the morning, much as I love it, always sets my stomach off in a bad way. On Friday morning, I forced myself to stay in bed until 9 and then got up to get some breakfast. Nervousness always turns both cereal and toast into tasteless cardboard in my mouth, but you need to press those calories down your throat. I enter into a bubble of my own before a race of this magnitude and withdraw into brooding (Jakob and dad would probably call it moody) silence. I meticulously prepared my racing gear and gave my crew detailed instructions on where to meet me along the route. UTMB has 16 official checkpoints where fluids and food are distributed. At five of these (Les Contamines, Courmayeur, Champex-Lac, Trient and Vallorcine), one member of your crew is allowed to enter the checkpoint tent with you to offer assistance. It would be vital for me to get help changing into dry clothes and replenish my bars and chocolates at these checkpoints, and above all: to receive some well-needed encouragement along the way. A friendly, well-known face cheering you on can sometimes mean the difference between a Finisher t-shirt and a DNF. The starting time was set for 6 in the evening, and Sondre had advised me to shoulder through pretty far in front in order not to get boxed in and forced to run single file in the beginning of the race. I had to leave my crew pretty early on in order to get a good position and then tried to calm my nerves standing among my fellow runners. There were 2 500 of us braving the Queen of these five Alpine races that make up the fabulous week that is Race Week in Chamonix; set for the final week of August each year. The races all either start or finish in front of St Bernard’s church at the Place du Triangle de l’Amitié in Chamonix. Getting closer to 6 o’clock, the throng started to press tighter and tighter while a song by Vangelis (1492, I believe) was blaring from the speakers. Someone had an eagle soar from a balcony by the starting arch just minutes prior to the start, and then the gun went off and the sea of runners started melting forward.

The profile of the UTMB, with Jakob's handwritten notes on cutoff times.

The profile of the UTMB, with Jakob’s handwritten notes on cutoff times.

In the thick of it at the start.

Mmm… Sardines…

The crowd was cheering like crazy and I don’t think I exaggerate when I say that it had to be close to 10 000 spectators watching the departure, thickly lining the streets. The only time I’ve come close to such a crowd support was in New York, but there, of course, we almost didn’t have any spectators at all at the starting line on Staten Island. I had to start and stop several times, due to runner’s congestion on the narrow streets, but soon enough my feet were thumping down a road along the river Arve and onto a gravel road further on. Sondre had advised me on a strategy that I was trying to follow as best as I could, which was to stick to my regular pace and keep it as long as possible, rather than open carefully and risk not making the cutoffs. I was in good shape and had a solid training foundation, and was full of confidence at this point. I reached Les Houches (8 km) in 50 minutes, which was pretty good considering I had spent more than six or seven minutes standing still at several points trying to get out of Chamonix. If anyone was in doubt that we were going to climb a whopping 10 000 m during this race, they got slapped to attention by the first 5 km climb (870+ m) up to Le Delevret. I felt I got passed by every single runner in the race, but I stuck to my pace and reached the top with breath to spare. It got crowded during the steep downhill part, and more than once I had to pass slower runners in front of me. The sun started to fall behind the mountains in front of us and after a while the falling darkness forced me to stop and rummage around in my pack for my brand new Petzl Nao head torch. I heard the crowds in St Gervais long before the street lights started popping up behind the trees, and after three hours of running on a more or less silent mountain, the roaring crowds that met us at 9 o’clock in St Gervais (21 km) were a bit of a shock. I tried to make only a quick stop to fill up my water bottles at this, the first proper checkpoint, but my crew were cheering madly at me from the side lines and I had to stop for a photo and highfive dad and Jakob with a big smile before, invigorated by their support, I ran on into the night. I checked the map in my front pocket and the 10 km to Les Contamines looked easy enough, but the incline on my tiny little map was deceptive and there was a fair bit of steep sections before I ran into the first checkpoint where my crew would be able to help me. Dad gave my arm a squeeze outside the tent and Jakob joined me inside, carrying the black bag I had prepared with dry clothes and food. There were runners and crew everywhere, and queues to the food that was laid out on the long, wooden tables. I hadn’t been able to eat very much and was worried I wasn’t replenishing calories fast enough. I had a chocolate bar, a cup of hot soup and a cup of coke before I changed into a dry Icebreaker and carried on with dad and Jakob walking with me for a bit along the road.

Starting the climb up to Croix du Bonhomme.

Starting the climb up to Croix du Bonhomme.

Still fresh and smiling at Les Houches.

Still fresh and smiling at Les Houches.

Put quite simply: the climb up to Croix Bonhomme was hell. I tried to keep the tempo up, but it felt like slogging through syrup. I leaned heavily on my Black Diamond running poles for every step and was breathless with the exertion. Runners passed me left and right and the reality of the situation started to sink in. I had around 1 300 m to climb in 15 km, which is pretty steep, but even so, I had done much worse during training up Wyllerløypa back in Oslo which I had conquered three or four times in quick succession a few times. And I had only been running for six hours, which should have been a walk in the park at this point. I thought back on my nutrition and fluid intake, but despite having bad appetite, I reasoned that these factors were also under control. How about the altitude? But I didn’t feel nauseous like I had in Cortina last year. Five days in Chamonix at an altitude of 1 000 meters had probably acclimatized me quite a bit. What then, was making my heart race and my breath coming in ragged, short bursts? I didn’t realize the answer until I would be leaving Courmayeur in another twelve hours, but what I was experiencing here for the first time during a race was anxiety. Pure and simple. When I reached the summit of Croix Bonhomme at 2 in the morning, I had covered 45 km and climbed 2 900 m, but I was focusing on something else altogether: the 123 km left to run and the 6 700 m left to climb. This, ladies and gentlemen is suicide during an ultra race, and especially during a race such as the UTMB. I’ve lost control in a similar way only once; just before the start of our Ironman four years ago. Since then, I had learned to control my nerves in the only way possible – by single-mindedly focusing on only the next checkpoint ahead and not on the entire rest of the race. A cardinal rule in ultra running. Well, at least for me. And just like that, by breaking that single rule, I came within an inch of quitting the entire race. I can’t recall much of the descent to Les Chapieux at 50 km, and quite frankly wouldn’t remember the checkpoint at all, if it wasn’t for the fact that this was where my coach Sondre unfortunately had had to abandon the race three hours earlier due to a hamstring injury. Dad and Jakob actually didn’t have the courage to tell me that Sondre had abandoned the race when I met them later during the day, for fear of my mental health since they later told me that I had looked like an emaciated ghost. That’s a good crew, right there. I probably would have collapsed in a heap if I had known.

I remember the climb up to Col de la Seigne (60 km, 2 507 m) better, since I reached the peak just before sunrise on Saturday, having run for around twelve hours. The view was spectacular and the slightly paler strip of black to the east clearly outlined the magnificent Italian mountains in front of us. Everything seems better in the morning and the rising sun always chases away the bad dreams of the night, and so it was for me. I wolfed down a chocolate bar and after a quick little selfie-movie by the official waymarker at the top I started down the trail towards the little group of runners that had passed me while I had admired the view. At this point I was glad I had decided to pack my warm Houdini Alpha Houdi, bright orange though it was, because it was a chilly morning. I quickly got warm during the run downhill, though, and pulled the front zipper down a bit while trying to avoid the bigger rocks along the trail. Very roughly speaking, and oversimplifying quite a bit, one can say that you have to climb ten mountain tops during the UTMB, and I found it easier to the tick them off one by one as I passed them. The third top, Col de la Seigne, was quickly followed by her twin top after only a couple of kilometers, but it was rough and stony going where I didn’t have a chance to pass any runners in front of me thanks to a very narrow trail with a sharp drop off to the right. There were several less thoughful enthusiasts behind me though, who happily flew by on not quite so nimble feet, kicking up stones and gravel as they went. How I love the thoughtful and respectful running of some of my fellow competitors. The long snake of runners trudged on until I finally saw an opening and nimbly – ahem – skipped past an Italian couple and set my sight on the checkpoint tent far below next to the little lake Lac Combal. I had to ask a slightly confused Japanese runner to move his backpack before I could sit down next to him on a narrow bench with my plate of noodle soup and hot cup of tea. At this point in the race, I had given up on trying to force down the jaw-breaking Italian biscuits, cheese, different salamies and raisin cake they were serving and was relying only on liquid calories, i.e. soup, broth, coke and tea with sugar, the bonus of the soup and tea being internal heating. I only had a short pit stop before carrying on and commencing the next climb up to Arrete du Mont-Favre (71 km, 2 409 m). There were several fenced-in pastures along this particular stretch of trail, but try as I might I couldn’t spot a single purple cow among all the traditionally coloured ones. Running down from the summit, I once again had trouble focusing on the next checkpoint in Courmayeur far below us, instead worrying about the devilish climb following immediately afterwards, according to my map. My brother has told me that Courmayeur is a fabulous place to ski since the Italians mostly leave the off-piste alone and focus on positioning themselves on the extensive network of sunlit verandas during lunchtime, and I could see that he hadn’t exaggerated the beauty of the place. The vista over this Italian jewel was lovely, and I identified several slopes worthy of my attention as I zig-zagged my way down through the leafy trees beside the ski lifts. When I exited the forest at the western edge of the village, I almost started to cry, so intense was my desire to rest my sore feet and meet dad and Jakob again at the halfway checkpoint of the race at 77 km.

Running through the streets of Courmayeur.

Running through the streets of Courmayeur.

When I hobbled down the grassy slope by the huge indoor arena, I saw Jakob taking photos and cheering. He took an involuntary step back when he saw my gaunt face though, and later confessed that he was a lot more worried than he let on. Dad met us with my bag inside the hall, where I changed from my warm Icebreaker into a cool t-shirt and also found my sunglasses and cap for the warm and sunny day ahead. Both of them were endlessly supportive and offered to get me both this and that from the foodstand. But not even the penne bolognese could make me answer in anything else than monosyllabic mutterings, and when I told them I was going to go and lie down behind one of the big curtains dividing up the hall into an eating and a sleeping area, they must have exchanged a knowing look. I have never lied down during any of my ultras, and once again, I came very close to submitting a DNF at this point, 18 hours into the race. I closed my eyes and relaxed every muscle in my body, trying only to focus on my breathing. 15 minutes of meditation later, I rose with a mighty effort, having decided to continue, and suddenly, I didn’t have a moment to lose. I curtly asked dad for my backpack, shrugged it on, picked my poles up and headed for the door. Dad gave me a pat on the back and a good luck out the door before heading back to their car, while Jakob wisely decided that I needed a boost of morale and some company. Since Jakob is a lousy liar, I shrugged away his effort at a complimentary comment about how fresh I looked, and instead gave his arm a squeeze of appreciation. Jakob knows me very well, and particularly how I react during these bouts of extreme mental and physical exertion, and it was a huge comfort to have him there right then. It was during the walk up a street towards the horrible climb through the woods up to Refugio Bertone where I made the decision. I haven’t widely advertised the fact in this blog that I am catholic and try to attend mass regularly, but the simple fact is that faith plays a huge part in my life and the literally tangible grace I feel in my own life on an everyday basis – both working with very sick children and in the faces of my daughter and wife – has often left me dumbstruck as to what extent God has blessed my life. At this point, I was as low as I have ever been in a race. Jakob left me at the edge of the little pathway disappearing up the mountain among the leafy birches and maples. I kissed the little amulet with Saint Anthony around my neck, looked up at the sky and whispered “Thy will be done, Lord. If I am meant to finish this race, then give me the strength and endurance to see it through. If I am not, then I’ll try to accept it. Can’t promise I’ll do it gracefully, though…”

Looking sceptically at my lunch at Rifugio Bonatti.

Looking sceptically at my lunch at Rifugio Bonatti.

The 5 km and 800 m climb to the stone cabin at Refugio Bertone was indeed gruesome, but I finally maintained control of my emotions and targeted only the one checkpoint ahead. The sun was grimly trying to pound a hole through my cranium, and I had to refill both of my water bottles at the water tanks. I chatted with a fellow Swedish runner for a few minutes before starting off at a run along the long, actually more or less flat, crest towards Refugio Bonatti. Jakob had climbed a good hour from the car where he had left dad illegally parked by the road and surprised me by catching up with me just before I passed the beep-beep of the official at the checkpoint. We shared a few minutes simply enjoying the gorgeous view of the Mont Blanc massif due south. This stretch of run, from Refugio Bertone all the way to the top of the highest peak of the race, Grand Col Ferret, was by far the most beautiful of the entire race. It was mid-afternoon and we took it all in by the breathful; the clear blue Alpine sky and the intensely white snow caps on the glaciers on the far side of the valley. No wonder people run this race year and year again. This moment reminded me of the sunrises Jakob and I shared from our tent in the Sahara. A brief moment in time to be cherished for its singular beauty. I had to move on, and gave Jakob a kick in the shins for not joining me for the entire race, the lazy bastard, and started off again. The slight descent to Arnuva featured at least three official photographers, surely due to the picturesque section of race we were currently on. After a semi-quick replenishment by the river, one of the steepest climbs of the race started. I had saved my audiobook for just this purpose, and to tell you the truth, the climb went as smoothly as any climb I have ever done. The sun wasn’t as cruel as earlier in the day, and I felt stronger for every climbing step I took up that emerald green slope. The highest point of the race, Grand Col Ferret (101 km, 2 527 m) marked our passage into the third country of the UTMB; Switzerland. I had been too out of it to reflect over the transition from France to Italy (it had been early in the morning, at Col de la Seigne), but now the achievement started to sink in. Not to gross any of you out or anything, but it is a testament to my efficiency (or simply laziness, I guess) that when I had to pee just past the summit, I simply took one step to the left off the gravel, and let it flow into a ditch, whereas earlier in the race I had almost ran half a kilometer into the forest for fear of offending anyone. Not so anymore. Exhaustion does that to people. I fell into one of my few conversations during the race with a friendly, Moses-beard-clad fellow (side point: what IS it with all these gargantuan beards sprouting all over the place?!? People look like they’re auditioning for Bible: The Movie…) from England. I hadn’t had such a high average speed since the early hours of the race, and despite getting mightily annoyed that the next checkpoint at La Fouly (111 km, 1 603 m) didn’t materialise soon enough, I felt I was back on track mentally. There really were a LOT of cows with cowbells lolling around in the pastures surrounding the village, and I was glad to escape the noise and duck into the tent for some hot soup and a change into a dry, long-sleeved shirt for the night. Dad and Jakob weren’t allowed to help me in La Fouly, but that would soon change. The first two-thirds of the race has only two checkpoints where a crew can assist their runner (at Les Contamines after 30 km and in Courmayeur after 77 km), but during the final 46 km you get to see their faces at almost every other aid station (Champex-Lac at 122 km, Trient at 139 km and Vallorcine at 149 km), which, all things considered, is pretty clever since that’s when you need them the most.

Leaving La Fouly.

Leaving La Fouly.

I turned on my head torch as I once again left the checkpoint with Jakob by my side tagging along for a kilometer before heading back to dad and the car again. Here, the field of runners started thinning out a bit, and I ran what felt like long stretches of trail on a steep ridge with only the sound of the river Dranse de Ferret far below me on my right keeping me company. We were running slightly downhill all the way to Praz de Fort where we crossed the river and continued on. The climb up to Champex-Lac took me on the same route dad had run in his own race OCC, and the final part of my race would be almost identical to what he had run. At the checkpoint at Champex-Lac, I suffered a minor nervous breakdown due to the fact that dad let me sleep for 45 minutes instead of waking me after 20 as I had asked him to. Jakob, alas, who would never have let me sleep that long, had been out hunting down a bag he had forgotten at a restaurant earlier in the evening, and hadn’t been there when I fell asleep. “But you looked so tired!”, dad defended himself, but to no avail. In his defense, he had of course done it with my best interests at heart since I had a good margin to the cutoff time and had fallen asleep in ten seconds flat on the narrow, wooden bench. But I had a really, REALLY difficult time calming down and after throwing a tantrum, I stormed out of the tent with my pack halfway slung around my shoulders and my poles sticking out in awkward angles. Well out of earshot, I cursed and bitched for at least ten minutes to the patiently listening Jakob who once again followed me to the edge of town, wisely holding his tongue. I know dad had only meant well, and even though I apologized profusely and sincerely for my outbreak at the next checkpoint, I stand firmly by the opinion that a crew has to obey – and I mean that in the literal sense of the word – a runner’s instructions to the letter. Especially an ultra runner. I had been running – or moving forward, at any rate – for 30 hours straight, the longest I have participated in any competition ever. This was my second night out and as fatigue goes, your people skills dwindle. Put simply, you do not have any margin whatsoever if things start to not go according to plan. I had all these plans for cutoff-times and finishing times, quite apart from the additional risk of stiffening up from sore muscles, and they all went out the window when I overslept. It wasn’t the end of the world, but it sure felt like it at the time. And I remember reflecting quite clearly during the tantrum that I was behaving like a child, but I couldn’t help myself in the slightest. All inhibitions were blown away, like leaves before a storm. I calmed down quickly enough, though. After a few minutes, I passed the first casualty of the night. One of the runners was lying in the grass next to the road, not a kilometer from the checkpoint, with his face up, head torch illuminating the moon and with a sweater draped across his torso, sleeping heavily. During the climb up to La Giete I passed several runners lying here and there, covered with saftey blankets, their snores competing with the cowbells for supremacy among the mountain tops. It was windy at the summit and I hurried down the trail toward the line of trees by the ridge, but the descent didn’t get any easier when the gravel of the mountain top turned into soft trail. This was one of the trickier, steeper descents where I didn’t make up much time running carefully downhill. One of the most irritating things about running ultras during the night is that you can often hear the sounds and music from a checkpoint long before you can actually see the lights in the darkness, and sometimes it feels like you’ve been running for hours before you finally reach the edge of town, which was my feeling before reaching Trient (139 km, 1 303 m). As soon as I saw dad, I gave him a hug and all was forgotten. Both he and Jakob – against the rules, dad posed as an official photographer, but I guess they relaxed the rules a bit this far into the race – joined me inside the tent, and helped me get soup and tea from the food stand, while one of the guys by the beep-beep put ABBA on the speakers when he saw the Swedish flag printed on my bib.

Jakob in Italy with the Mont Blanc massif in the background.

Jakob in Italy with the Mont Blanc massif in the background.

The climb up to Catogne was brutal with many large rocks forcing me to take high steps and work my already tired thighs, but luckily I was helped enormously by a second dose of audiobook at this point to help take my mind of the dreadful climb. The next descent took me past several skiing slopes and the morning sun lit my way among the ski lifts. I emerged from the tree line around a kilometer from Vallorcine (149 km, 1 270 m) to find Jakob waiting for me, bless him. Him and dad had slept for two hours in the car before driving on to Vallorcine and France. My first night out they had slept only four-and-a-half hours. Crewing during an ultra is not for the faint of heart, that’s for sure. It was almost 8 o’clock in the morning before I left the final checkpoint at which I could receive help from my crew, and I wouldn’t see them again until I’d cross the finish line in Chamonix. Despite the chilly morning, I had changed into a dry short-sleeved shirt, anticipating a hot day. After about a kilometer, I received my biggest surprise of the race when I was met by Sondre and his dad. Their presence at that particular point in the race gave me an enormous boost and for the first time since my Marianer-low in Courmayeur, I dared believe I would actually finish the race. “You’re strong, Jakob! Go for a good finish!”, was all it took and I literally flew off towards the final Climb From Hell, the 700 m up a vertical wall to La Tête aux Vents (The Head of Winds, I believe). The less said about the climb, the better. Suffice it to say that the sun made me suffer badly and I was greatly feeling the effort of having run more than 150 km. The severe-looking lady at the top beep-beeped my bib at an altitude of 2 116 m, and I looked up to enjoy the stunning view of Mont Blanc and the Chamonix valley in all its glory. I ran on towards the final checkpoint at La Flégère, and before I entered the tent by the cable car station, I waved to the webcam for the last time. I emptied a full water bottle over my head and decided to go all in during the final descent to Chamonix. Thank God Sondre had taken me down the same track a few days – or was it weeks? – earlier. How many times in my life have I run 8 km? Many, many, many times. I kid you not when I tell you that I thundered down that skiing slope like a Greek God of old, and not a neurologically challenged geriatric patient. Runners and spectators, old and young, stood and gaped at this apparation flying down the mountain side, not quite knowing whether to laugh or call an ambulance. Apart from the very first part of the race, this was by far my fastest leg during the entire race and I passed 26 (!) runners during the descent, finally ranking me in 976th place. I later found out that out of the 2 500 runners starting the race, more than 950 didn’t finish. UTMB is not an easy race by any stretch of the imagination.

Final sprint.

Final sprint.

With dad and Sondre at the finish.

With dad and Sondre at the finish.

I realize now that I have failed to mention the spectators and supporters. I’ve babbled on and on in earlier blog posts about the fabulous crowd support during the New York Marathon which truly was impressive, but the support the crowds showed during the UTMB was in a different league, not only for its enthusiasm and warm-heartedness but also for its tenacity and… well, endurance! Regardless time of day or place along the route, there was always someone cheering us and clapping us along. Like the farmer on the slopes after Le Delevret who had fashioned his own aid station, filling up water bottles from his hose with the most delicious cold water I tasted during the entire race. Or the girls who cheered and whooped when I stumbled into Champex-Lac in the middle of the night. Or the families and kids who waved me on and high-fived me during the final run into Chamonix.

I ran all alone along the river Arve towards the centre of town, leaving every other runner behind me, and the support from the expectant crowd was heart-warming. Dad and Jakob met me a few hundred meters from the square at the finish and ran with me towards the finishing arch. During the last few meters I raised my arms as if to fly across the line, and as I turned back towards dad, Jakob and the rest of the spectators, I threw my head back and arms wide and roared with emotion.

After 42 hours and 18 minutes, I was a finisher of the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc.

Final sprint.

While in Italy, we visited my aunt who is a Benedictine nun at this lovely monastery on an island in lago d'Orta.

While in Italy, we visited my aunt who is a Benedictine nun at this lovely monastery on an island in lago d’Orta.

And an ultra race in the Alps is of course never finished until we've visited cousin Dot and her wonderful family.

And an ultra race in the Alps is of course never finished until we’ve visited cousin Dot and her wonderful family.

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