“How was CCC?” Since finishing the race this past week, friends, family, and Run the Alps guides and clients have wanted to hear my experience taking part in the legendary event.
I’ve had a hard time forming a coherent answer about running 100 kilometers over the course of a long, hard day. During the race, my mind played tricks. Individual moments are etched firmly, but huge swaths are largely vacant. I’m left with snapshots that woke me en route from my nose-to-the-grindstone push up, down and around half of the Mont Blanc Massif, from Courmayeur, Italy to Champex, Switzerland, and ultimately to a finish line in Chamonix, France. 18 hours and 52 minutes that will be forever saved as a continuous impressionistic blur. My own personal trail running version of Monet’s Water Lilies.
My day was mostly an introspective one: calculating each footfall, scouting the trail a few feet ahead, listening to my body, checking and adjusting plans, and thinking about fuel and water. The external world interrupted these reveries with moments that were both laugh-out-loud amusing, poignant, beautiful, and sad. Here’s a sampling:
*Viale Monte Bianco, Courmayeur
“Europeans,” I think to myself, “Have a flair for the dramatic.” I am in the first of three waves of 1,900 runners total and have listened to three national anthems, words from Chamonix’s Mayor, and a send off from the UTMB series Race Director, Catherine Poletti. It’s now our recreational D-Day, Zero hour. The 10-second countdown is about to start.
What will happen en route looms large. Will I run solidly? Will I number among the small percentage whose day actually goes according to plan? Will I get injured on a fast, technical downhill? Or will I blow up en route, out of energy and the drive to go on? I’ve thought about this race for years. I’m finding it hard to keep my emotional center. I glance around. Some in the crowd are looking down, a few are looking skyward for God-knows-what, others are chatting nervously, and one or two seem wide-eyed. I give myself a pep talk. “You got this, Mayer. You totally got this.” I close my eyes for a minute and listen to the sounds of this scene, which I already know will constitute one of the big moments of my life. Eventually, I focus on my breathing, and I hear nothing else. Ironic, I think, focusing on my breath. In seconds, it’ll be elevated for nearly 19 hours.
*Tête de la Tronche, Italy
I wrap up the first hard climb: 1,200 meters in 2 hours and 34 minutes. We are atop a beautiful, high grassy ridge. Courmayeur looks impossibly distant, as if seen from a jet window. Across Val Ferret, the glaciers of Mont Blanc shimmer. There’s a quiet, easy camaraderie among the small group of us taking a break at the timing station. “This scene, this view, these people,” I think, “This is why I trail run.” I am eager for speed, and push off, cruising along the ridge to Refuge Bertone as fast as I’ve run all summer.
*Col Grand Ferret, on the border between Italy and Switzerland
I am out of water at the hottest moment of the day. It’s been warm—over 90ºF, I’m guessing, in the valley. “If it stays like this for more than a few hours,” I think, “I’ll never see Chamonix.”
I find shade behind the emergency tent and sit down, put my head between my knees, and close my eyes. Moments pass. I look up and see the Swiss Alps for the first time during the race. The snows of Mont Mort, above Col du Grand St. Bernard. The lush slopes of Switzerland’s end of Val Ferret. I think of the course ahead, realizing that I have downhill running for the next two hours and water in just 5 km. I can do this. I remember a line from Chloë Lanthier, “The physical gets you up, the mental moves you forward.” She’s raced Marathon des Sables five times, has ridden her mountain bike solo to Nome, Alaska. She’s gone to sleep at -65ºF, unsure if she’d wake up to ride in the morning. Her words are a form of inspiration. I rise and move. “Things will get better,” I think. In minutes, I hear the familiar cacophony of cowbells. “Hellllo, Switzerland!” I holler. Hikers, astride the trail to let me pass, laugh at my outburst.
A kilometer outside of town, I start hearing the cheering. It’s a dull roar, as if from a packed stadium. Onlookers are already lining the trail. Families, friends, and couples, are clapping and cheering us on. It’s impossible not to pick up the pace. The US flag and my first name imprinted on my bib allow the onlookers to try out some English. “Go Doog!” I like the mispronunciation, which reminds me I’m in foreign terrain. “U-S-A!” “Allez, Doog, allez!” By the time I reach the control point and aid station, it’s practically a crush of humanity. Hands are sticking out from every direction. I reach to high-five the smaller ones on my way into the tent. This huge outpouring for a recreational runner is something I’ve never experienced, and it’s an incredible boost to my spirits.
*La Ferme et Les Filles
Darkness is coming to Switzerland’s Valais region, as we start the long 865-meter climb up through the forest to La Giete. Our last outpost is a small farm, where two girls have set up an impromptu aid station—plastic cups of water on an up-ended wooden crate. It is impossibly cute. I quickly chug a cup, and blurt out, “Vous êtes trop gentils!” (“You are so nice!”) They giggle. My mind is starting to play tricks, so I say out loud, “Remember this scene.” The girls look confused. 100 meters up the trail, I wonder why I didn’t pull out my cell phone and snap a photo.
*En route to Trient
In the semi-darkness high above the Rhône Valley, three of us are in lock-step, moving upwards. I am entirely focused on the terrain a step ahead when I hear the voice of the lead in our trio. “Vous êtes bien?” (“You’re okay?”) A weak, “Oui” comes back. Its tone suggests anything but yes. I read it as, “Yeah, I’m fine, if you mean I’m not seriously hurt. But, I’m done. You guys have permission to go on.” I glance sideways as I move by. He’s sprawled out on a boulder, absolutely immobile, eyes closed. His arms are in an odd, torqued position. It reminds me of an illustration in an EMT textbook I read years ago. Decorticate or decerebrate? I can’t recall the difference. Both indicate brain trauma. But, he’s fine– fine enough, anyway. My empathy hits my competitive mind, and the results are confusing. “Poor guy, not his day,” I think. And, then, “One more that I’ve passed.”
*Sunset, somewhere above the Rhône valley
I am alone, running for the last few minutes before I need to reach for my headlamp. It’s very nearly pitch dark. The lights of Martigny are at my feet. Cowbells are ringing, just feet away. In the darkness, I see friendly shapes in every direction. I want to stop and say hello… I want to pat them and feel coarse cow tongue on my sweaty arms, but I’m in a good groove, making nice forward progress. I want this moment to last for hours. My legs are strong, miles are behind me, the setting is idyllic, and I feel fully alone for the first time all day. A minute later, the scene’s gone. I’m back in the forest and reaching inside a vest pocket for my headlamp.
It’s dark now, and my world has become lonelier. The climb has ended, and I know there’s a remote checkpoint up here soon—but where? Then, race tape across the trail indicates a diversion. I look up, and see a bonfire ahead. It’s La Giete, and it’s one of the most beautiful stops along the entire course. A weathered cabin, a crackling camp fire, a few volunteers quietly sharing a discussion with laughs interspersed. On the other side of a rustic cabin window, I see a group enjoying dinner. This feels familiar, like a cabin in the mountains at home. I want to stay, but tonight’s not the night. I promise myself I’ll come back. A volunteer raises one of the ubiquitous electronic readers to record the chip that’s part of my race bib. Done. I’ve officially been here, and my time is being flashed to the UTMB web site, to anyone who cares to know. I’m good to go and so I do, into the first hour of what will be a long night.
*Descending into Vallorcine
I’m in the air. I don’t know how it happened, but I’m sailing off the trail, head first. It’s a rough landing in the brush. I take a breath and haul myself up to the trail.
No blood. No pain. It’s my first fall in 50 miles. I know from other long trail races the importance of focusing on the positive, so I check my negative inclination and spin the moment. “How does it happen?” I wonder. “How can a guy run 50 miles on mountain trails and not fall at least ten times?” I’m grateful for this nimble-enough body, those learned technical running skills, the mental energy to focus for long periods. On we go.
*La Tête aux Vents
My strategy today was to start slow and save energy for the finish. Maybe it’s working, or maybe it’s the endless packets of Gu I’ve consumed since 9 a.m. this morning, but I am running hard now, passing someone every few minutes. I feel like I’ve just started the race. I’m bewildered by this newfound energy, but I’ll take it. When I can, I glance up and enjoy the full moon over Mont Blanc. I toss out a “Bonsoir” to each runner I pass—not too energetically, though, since the rest of them seem logy at best. I am vaguely scared that I am going so fast, I’m going to blow a physiological gasket of some kind. ADP, ATP, mitochondria. That whole Krebs cycle might crumble and turn to dust. But the moment never comes. This terrain is eerily like my home trails in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. I know how to move quickly, here. “I’ve trained for this for decades,” I think.
Above treeline now, my eyes catch a distant glow through this mellow alpine night. My brain can’t process it. The lights of the Flégère tram station? A bonfire? Ten minutes later, I see it’s a huge glowing orb at Flégère… a sort of visual homing beacon for us tired souls seeking company, food, drink, first aid. In minutes, I’m inside the aid tent, with just a handful of volunteers and a few runners talking quietly. Chloë Lanthier greets me. She’s run up from Chamonix, with the chocolate croissant I requested. I give her a hug, but I can’t touch a treat I’d normally have to work not to inhale. My stomach just can’t handle much, right now. I grab some chunks of banana from the food table and force them down. With just 10 km to go, I only half fill the bladder in my trail running vest this time. I find Chloë, talking to a friend. “Okay, let’s get this done.”
It’s happening. I’m running through the pre-dawn streets of Chamonix. On the outskirts, police stand and watch for the occasional vehicle. They point me in the right direction. The town is asleep. I’m confused by all these turns. Where am I? I want to get in under 19 hours, and this feels like it’s taking forever. Finally, I spy the Arve river, the sports complex, and the Hotel Alpina. Landmarks I know. There are people up at this hour, clapping. I am grateful for their enthusiasm, which generates fresh voltage for my legs. I turn down Rue Joseph Vallot, and there’s more clapping. My pace involuntarily quickens. Past L’Atelier, a café where I spend so much time working that friends call it my office.
I see the finish, a black stripe painted like runway guidance, to the timing mat 50 meters away in a straight line. I have seen this view hundreds of times in photos over a decade or more. For trail runners, it’s the most famous finish line in the world. The huge UTMB arch, the banners. I can’t see that view without thinking of the years of drama, the legends that have passed down this street. In my own nearly-insignificant way, my steps are now also part of a greater story of these UTMB races. I hear an announcer. “Doog Mayer…. Etats-Unis…. Dix-huit, cinquante-deux… zero-zero.”
Eighteen hours, fifty-two minutes, zero seconds.
It’s over. I can stop running now.
CCC by the numbers:
Liters of water consumed: 18
Gu packets consumed: 24
Aid stations: 12
Trips and falls: 1
Times I thought I might have to drop out: 1
Age group: 11 of 180
UTMB web site
Trail Runner Magazine: 7 Remarkable Things That Happened at the 2015 UTMB