Me voila again at the starting line of UTMB. Last time I stood here dates back in 2012. The year when the race got shortened, due to a stormy, bad whether.. And I am countering back the years. TDS in 2011, CCC in 2010 and my first year in Chamonix, 2009, when I fell in love with “those” mountains. The year I did not finish the race. I was simply not capable to do it.
7 years passed and I felt the first time that I can safely and surely be a finisher of UTMB if everything goes well. All trail experiences gathered, spirit and body matured enough. I applied in confidence for the lottery and was lucky enough to get drawn to start a race that is on all the ultra trailers’ wishlist.
Packed in the back of the peloton, we are waiting for Vangelis to gives us the final battle signal. As the old time “guerriers” leaving for the war. I don’t particularly like this music. To be diplomatic. It doesn’t thrill me as it does for others. I find it pretty sad, oldish in a way, just giving a sense of depression. All not that sad. Should rather be a great adventure to begin. As a French guy next to me says to his friends right after the start: “que notre grand adventure commence!”.
Albeit I miss this feeling a bit. This sense of awaiting for the adventure. Though I did everything, completed a full scale of preparations. Even if UTMB was not the main race of the year. This was a week-long relay of a 3 men strong team to run across Hungary, 400 km during 6 days per person. But that’s an other story to tell.
I’ve been to different races in different countries. Beside the usual ones in my homeland, I did the BVG Trail in Italy, the Vipava Ultra Trail in Slovenia, Dolomiti Extreme Trail in Italy. I got injured in May and then again after the cross Hungary relay.
So at the starting-line I’m rather preoccupied if I can do it at all. Uncertainty, a sense of anxiety, worry. I feel a strange something. Something as this whole thing would be a work to complete. I feel like to be a craftsman. An artisan of trailing. With no big conviction.
Walking out of the start zone makes no difference to my state of mind. There is too much hype in and around. Almost feel like at the New York City Marathon.UTMB and its accompanying races have always been major trail running mass events, if not THE event of the international ultra trail community. Though it used to have a certain charm. Now the mass event has remained, but the charm has disappeared leaving the room for some sort of fiesta.
We are slowly jogging out of the city. I am in the back end, like sardines in the box. I pretty much know the first 40 km. Ran this segment in the 2012 UTMB and during the Traversée, a 210 km long team challenge we did in 2014.
During the past days and weeks I found and read Lao-Tze and his Tao Te Ching. Not on purpose though, but it became step by step my mantra during this long roundtrip. I kept coming back to sections on fears, hatred, and the composition of full. A feeling of emptiness came progressively. Just doing my thing, I progressed step by step and felt this sense of emptiness. But the emptiness had no negative impact on me, had no negative ‘aura’. And not a positive one neither. It was just a plain emptiness as is.
Favour and disgrace would seem equally to be feared; honour and
great calamity, to be regarded as personal conditions (of the same
What is meant by speaking thus of favour and disgrace? Disgrace is
being in a low position (after the enjoyment of favour). The getting
that (favour) leads to the apprehension (of losing it), and the losing
it leads to the fear of (still greater calamity):–this is what is
meant by saying that favour and disgrace would seem equally to be
And what is meant by saying that honour and great calamity are to be
(similarly) regarded as personal conditions? What makes me liable to
great calamity is my having the body (which I call myself); if I had
not the body, what great calamity could come to me?
Therefore he who would administer the kingdom, honouring it as he
honours his own person, may be employed to govern it, and he who would
administer it with the love which he bears to his own person may be
entrusted with it.’
(It is the way of the Tao) to act without (thinking of) acting;
to conduct affairs without (feeling the) trouble of them; to taste
without discerning any flavour; to consider what is small as great,
and a few as many; and to recompense injury with kindness.
(The master of it) anticipates things that are difficult while they
are easy, and does things that would become great while they are
small. All difficult things in the world are sure to arise from a
previous state in which they were easy, and all great things from one
in which they were small. Therefore the sage, while he never does
what is great, is able on that account to accomplish the greatest
He who lightly promises is sure to keep but little faith; he who is
continually thinking things easy is sure to find them difficult.
Therefore the sage sees difficulty even in what seems easy, and so
never has any difficulties. ‘(Tao Te Ching, translated by J. Legge)
Surely however, not all this 170 km, the route from Chamonix to Chamonix was so spiritual. The first 20 km was just profoundly and simply painful, selfish and negative. I did this craftsman stuff with no motivation at all. I just wondered what a hack I did here. I simply wanted to quit. At 20 km. No kidding.
Then I received a text from my girl, my woman. Suddenly that changed it all. And that was not a certain motivation I (re)-found.. on the contrary. What I got, was a gently push toward a relief from the forced, nervy and permanent search for motivation. This has launched me on the path of a well disciplined trail of a 171 km with a spirit of empty emptiness.
I ran through the night, hiked so many beautiful mountains and “cols”. I have had problems. Couldn’t swallow a bite of anything. But I knew it’s gonna be over at a certain point of time. And until that, I’ll continue my journey. To put one foot in front of the other. A great commonplace is that ultras are about the ability to solve problems. The faster, better, more sustainable you solve your problems, will you finish earlier and in better conditions.
Soon, the only 25-30 km that I did not know from the whole UTMB course will come to an end. But as a gift I presumably got, I had one to the most special Saturday mornings of my life. With a cooled down temperature, a freezing dawn, a hallucinating sunrise, I ran into a sea of clouds over 2000 m. So freaky, so good. Un samedi matin pas come les autres.
Courmayeur at half way: a long break. Bertone, Bonatti, probably one of the most beautiful places to run on Earth. Always having Monte Bianco in sight. Arnuva, the so deeply feared Grand Col Ferret.. All passes so fast. As time in normal life. I remember my first and second CCC. A friend who died since, an other one moved to Australia and lost from sight. And a friend submerged into work. Nice chaps at a time. I dedicate these parts to these mates and I smile.
La Fouly comes. I lay down on a bank for 10 minutes. It’ so f. hot outside. My face burns, I need a little siesta, the first time I feel a bit tired. I hear the speaker saying that the winner of UTMB has just crossed the finish line in Chamonix.. Me, I have 60 km to go. But I don’t have frustration, no hatred or anger. I have an inner smile. Not a zen type one, or mannered. Just a smile, not even visible.
Next stop is Champex. I surprise myself with a pretty good running pace. I get into conversation with an Icelandic guy, he comes from a land I definetely want to visit and run one day. At Champex, my teammate waits for me. He is of a great help, a professional and a rewarded coach, he knows how to serve.
From Champex on, still, I’m running. Directly into a storm. It’s gonna be night soon, but the thunders are so lighty, I just delay switching on my headlamp. Runners are palpably afraid around. Some are even screaming when thunders hit at full speed.
No worry, it’s gonna be over. I count the seconds passed between the lighting and the crash. The difference is growing. No worry. It ‘s leaving.
Then I still have to descend from la Bovine. It’s all muddy a.f. I literally skating down. Falling at almost every 200 meters. Painful, slow, tiresome. I changed shoes in Courmayeur, I did not expect rain and mud. It’s a street running shoe with a flat sole. Any question?
I almost quit at the next refreshment point in Trient. But discipline prevails. Oliver is there, so I can change the fully wet clothes to new ones. Then the storm is over. I peacefully hike la Catogne. I like this col. It doesn’t hurt, it’s smooth and it prepares you for the last big battle: la Tete aux vents. This one is though, a real reward at the end. The fastest km is around 15 minutes. But still my taoism stands. Though I’m questioning myself for how long my suffering will last. This is a tricky, ‘unrunnable’ part of the course. I’m walking, lumping, ambling along. La Flegere, the last point comes so slowly, seems like it takes ages to arrive to the station. I’m finally there and start the last downhill. I have a pain in my knee, in my back. I have stomach problems too. My digestion is as fast as a Formula 1 race..
But nothing can push me out from my mental balance. I run through my favorite café, la Floria. I know it’s gonna be over soon. The sun is slowly rising. I arrive just before day, 36 hours and 17 minutes later than I started this journey. No euphoria, but a sense of satisfaction. A work completed. Handcrafted by legs, spirit and mind matured in happiness and failures of the past years of trails and life.
And my love and thanks first go to Moni who supported me during the long past years and all the others who believed me and made possible that I became capable to be an UTMB finisher.