Anton Krupicka just came back from the grueling UTMB 2014 with stories to tell. Here’s some insight on one of the world’s gnarliest races direct from the man himself:
I didn’t commit to running UTMB this year until two weeks before race day. During the second week of July my historically-troublesome right shin became a worry once again, and I was able to do very little true running for all of July and August. In early August, in hopes of keeping my Hardrock Qualifier chances alive, but wanting to buy myself a little more time, I had even signed up for the Bear 100 and given up on racing UTMB altogether. However, my shin unexpectedly experienced a turnaround a couple weeks before the race, which made the opportunity to head back to Chamonix too appealing to pass up. So, in some ways, it felt like a bit of a victory that I was even going on the trip and planning to toe the start line. After a solid week of training in the Chamonix Valley—including a summit of Mont Blanc itself as my last long effort 10 days before the race—I tapered the final seven days and eventually departed from in front of the church in Chamonix with 2500 others for a trip around the big mountain.
Pre-race, I repeatedly told myself (and, occasionally, others) that I was fit and prepared to compete for the win. I’m a competitive guy and racing 100mi through the Alps is a daunting task, so it would’ve been difficult for me to line up with any chinks in my confidence. Of course, cold objectivity would have outlined a different story. Sure, I’d been able to log plenty of steep, high-altitude vertical in Colorado’s Sawatch Range for the previous two months, but the longest continuous run that I managed since my effort at Lavaredo at the end of June was an hour on the creek path in Boulder only hours before I jumped on my flight to Europe. A bit too much proper running in Chamonix had re-tweaked my shin only one week before the race, and even though this had been rectified by the taper, it was proof that even with minimal actual running I was still just barely striking a very precarious balance between health and injury.
As such, there was no question that I needed to conduct a reprisal of the conservative start that I’d employed at last year’s UTMB. I jogged through the rain to Les Houches amongst the masses and top women before finally beginning to move up a bit on the first climb to Col de Voza above St. Gervais. The descent down the other side into town was a bit disheartening, which has become typical for me. It’s steep in an awkward way that always leaves my quads unexpectedly wobbly, and I’m still so far back in the field that I don’t feel at all part of the action amongst the contenders.
Even so, the supporting cheers in St. Gervais certainly felt as deafening as ever. And I’m using the word literally here. It is loud. If there is a spot in ultrarunning more charged with energy and emotion than St. Gervais during UTMB, I’d like to know.
The run up the valley to Les Contamines (30km) passed much the same as last year—trying not to push too hard, passing a couple runners here and there—except that this time it was pouring rain and getting dark (the race start was an hour later than last year). I arrived at this crew spot in 20-something place, ~13min off the lead, but feeling totally in control. Joe gave me my nighttime headlamps, stuffed my vest with gels, and sent me on my way.
Notre-Dame de la Gorge a couple of miles later is one of my favorite spots on the course. For me, it marks the beginning of climbing into the alpine, the terrain that allows me to catch up. However, everyone gets to experience the rowdy atmosphere marked by manic, Tour de France-style crowds lining the bottom of the steep climb and wild, leaping bonfire flames that light the way. UTMB is madness, but often in a really good way.
The rain intensified on the bottom half of this climb, and shortly before the La Balme refuge at treeline I caught and passed the American duo of Mike Foote and Jason Schlarb (who I didn’t recognize in the moment). Foote came with me and we chatted briefly before I was alone again, picking my way up the washed-out trails to the Col du Bonhomme. The fog was thick on the short traverse over to the Croix du Bonhomme and I spent a lot of time fiddling with my headlamps trying to give myself the best vision possible. Thankfully, we soon dropped out of the cloud on the descent to Les Chapieux and I was back in hunting mode.
In all the confusion of the mass start, rain, and night, I had no idea what place I was in or where any of the other Americans were other than Footie (and Hal, who I had passed before Contamines). So, after passing someone (maybe Sondre or Antolinos?) on the drop to Chapieux I was surprised when just above the refuge Brian Metzler informed me I was in 5th place and about 8 or 9min off the lead pack of Francois, Iker, Tofol, and Luis.
In Chapieux, there’s a quick obligatory material check, and then it’s ~30min on an uphill asphalt road to the base of the Col de la Seigne climb. I was fairly determined to catch the lead group on either this climb or the next (Mont Favre)—mostly because I had last year—and my effort up and over these two hills was probably just a little too hard as a result. I managed to cut my deficit to only 4min, but then on the drop into Courmayeur (77k and the sort of symbolic half-way point of the race) I had to make a pair of pit-stops, so the gap had grown back to 8min by time I reached the gymnasium in town.
I was still feeling good as I headed out of Courmayeur, and my spirits were boosted by the enthusiasm of Kim and Topher Gaylord and Nico Mermoud just as I left the road and stepped onto the trail—thanks guys! In an incredibly ironic bit of foreshadowing, I remember one of the last comments I made to Toph was that my stomach was still feeling great but that maybe by time I got to Arnuva I’d get a little Coke for the long climb up Grand Col Ferret. Oh, how that statement would soon be proven so incorrect.
At first, marching up the hill to the Bertone Refuge was a pleasure. I was all alone, enjoying the still, clear night and the spectacular view of town’s lights receding quickly below me. Gradually, though, my stomach began to rebel at the thought of a gel, and by the time I made it to the aid station, I was full-on nauseous. As such, I quickly filled my flask with Coke there and continued on my way. For a while, I could sip on the Coke, but things only got worse with my stomach, and even though the trail here is a gently rolling contour over to the Bonatti Refuge, I wasn’t running nearly as much as I would had I managed to get more sugar into my bloodstream.
Somewhere in here I began to have distinct flashbacks to Leadville 2010 when I passed out on the summit of Sugarloaf Pass at mile 81 with hypoglycemia and hypothermia. Doing so all alone in the middle of the night here in Italy was a decidedly unsavory prospect, so my new goal became to just make it to Bonatti without losing consciousness. My physical abilities continued to be exceedingly weak.
When I finally staggered into the Refuge, though, the single bowl of soup (saltwater, essentially) I managed to drink and the info that Iker wasn’t looking too good and that I could probably catch him jazzed me up and for the few minutes out of the aid station I moved with some renewed pep. Alas, the physical realities of my (non-) calorie situation quickly set back in, and it was back to the same dizzy struggle to make it the few mostly-downhill kilometers over to the Arnuva aid at 95K.
The thought of heading up Grand Col Ferret—the highest, longest climb on the course—without fuel was terrifying, so I made sure to stay in the Arnuva aid a long time. This meant that I drank two bowls of soup (these even had a couple noodles in them) and re-filled my flask with Coke before heading back out and up into the night.
Getting my body up to Col Ferret was a nightmare, an act of sheer will. The usual term “bonking” doesn’t really begin to describe how tapped out I felt. I simply needed calories. But the nausea continued. Miraculously, right before the top of the hill, I passed Luis Hernando in a cloud of fog, moving myself into 4th place. The officials who scanned my number told me that the leading group was just ahead (this was wrong…the truth was that they were ~30min ahead); passing Luis gave me a meager but woefully short-lived boost of energy (he was even more defeated than myself and would drop at La Fouly) and within minutes I settled back into a depleted downhill wobble. I was amazed that no one had passed me yet.
Although I’m sure things were even worse for those further back in the pack, any energy afforded by the rising sun on the descent into Fouly (108k) was more than negated by the almost comically slick and sloppy nature of the downhill singletrack. Somehow, I managed to only go down a couple of times. I was desperate to get to Fouly as I knew my body needed some kind of sustenance to keep going (anything bland sounded vaguely doable), but my nausea was rendering any of the gels or Coke I had non-consumable.