UTMB Week(s) has come and gone and just like many races, the buildup is just as much, if not more, fun than the actual race. This year I headed out to Chamonix a little early, arriving several days before the races started. This was mostly because I selfishly wanted some time to play but also because I was capturing Sarah Keyes and Aliza LaPierre’s journey to the big one.
The early arrival meant exploring new and familiar trails with the two women - first was a Tour of “Le Tour”, an 14 mile loop climbing straight up to Refuge Albert 1er and traversing across the valley over to Aiguillette des Posettes and down to Col Du Montets. It was and absolute jet lag crusher and the perfect day for it.
The next day the clouds moved in but Sarah and I tried to climb above them to Le Brevent. It didn’t quite work out but it was also another new route climbing up part of the VK course under Plan Praz and up to the top of Le Brevent. The clouds never lifted but we did catch a few views before traversing down to Les Houches and taking the train back.
The next day Aliza, Sarah, and Corrine Malcolm headed up La Flégère for some photos / video up at Lac Blanc. We thought we had the weather dialed but clouds rolled in almost immediately as we arrived. It was pretty frustrating but we still got some good shots and left content for the effort.
With time to kill that evening I headed up the full Chamonix VK course and back up to the Col du Brevent to see the views I missed the previous day. It was worth the 5k’ of climbing to see what was on the other side of the ridge. After some goating around I decided to get back down to Chamonix before the temps dropped any further. It was a long slow jog down the access road with a dying headlamp.
Monday I headed to Geneva to get a rental car. Unfortunately when I arrived on Thursday, my rental reservation had been cancelled because my flight arrived 5 hours after my reservation, lesson learned! Super frustrating but there was nothing I could do. If you reserve in advance cars are only $13/day, well worth it for the freedom to explore and I also needed one to follow the race since I wasn’t using the press transportation this year. I got my car and headed to Megeve for a dinner up by the airport and enjoyed the rest day.
Now that I had my car I headed down to meet Aliza and Sarah for a shakeout in Les Houches. Aliza had sprained her ankle and was taking it easy. Little did we know that it was a Grade 3 sprain that I’ll get into a little later. We ran the UTMB course by the river for three miles and called it good. That evening I wanted to go climb a peak that I skied a couple years back, Mont Buet. It’s at 10k’ so it’s a bit of a climb. The plan was to get some night photos and head back when I was ready (either cold, tired, or both). It turned out to be a three hour push to get up there with a moderately heavy pack (sleeping bag, stove / food, and camera gear). Was it worth it? Definitely. I was able to get some great photos before hiking down at midnight, back at my car shortly after 2am, and in bed by 3. You can’t really do that kind of adventuring with public transit.
Wednesday was the TDS race so Sarah and I headed to Les Contamines to cheer on Corrine and I used it as a chance to video the top 5 men and women coming through. I ended up running around for about 6 miles and the men’s race was tight - less than two minutes separated first and third in a 70+ mile race. Incredible. Corrine also raced very well and ended up 4th on an altered course including a 30 minute “hail” delay.
Thursday I kept things mellow and just hiked up to La Floria to watch the end of the OCC race. I ran this back in 2016 but it has definitely become more competitive over the years. I watched the top men and women before heading back down and getting dinner with the Julbo crew.
UTMB. The goal of the race was to capture the men and women, specifically Sarah and Aliza, through as many locations as practical. It was stressful since I was doing this without a co-pi and making all the decisions on my own. I was nervous of traffic and missing the action. I was also trying to provide coverage for Trail Runner Magazine so in hindsight it was a little much. To avoid parking in town I left my car with Sarah’s (one mile from the start), and we along with Aliza walked to the start. This year they had several levels of press access and I was “C” - this barely got me anywhere. I was able to get some video / photos in the women’s elite corral which was actually perfect.
After the start I ran back to my car and headed towards St Gervais, the 12 mile aid station. But, since I was quick enough, I went to Les Houches first and was able to see the first wave of men and women come through. From there I raced back to my car and now I was starting to stress out - traffic was backed up on the highway well before the exit to St Gervais. I looked at my map and saw that I could take the next exit then backdoor up some windy roads. I knew I had made the right decision when I saw other media vehicles making the same move. I parked above down and hike up a ways until I caught the front runners. Soon after it started to rain, making videoing very difficult and after Sarah and Aliza came through I headed to Les Contamines. There was a road block preventing us from driving so I hopped in a bus but in hindsight I should have looked at alternative routes because not having my car with all my gear was challenging.
At Contamines, carnage started to happen with a lot of the favorites already dropping. Sarah motored through looking strong and I waited for Aliza but I figured I missed her since I never saw her come out of the tent but saw she checked in. From here I hopped back on the bus to my car and went to Aliza’s in Les Houches to get a little bit of sleep. Not long after pulling in, SHE pulled in with her parents. She had dropped and that’s why I never saw her come out of the tent, her ankle was bothering her and she knew better than push it any further. It was sad but what can you do. After a quick nap I was headed over to Courmayeur to catch the leaders and Sarah. I got over there a little before 2am and didn’t have much time to kill before Zach Miller came flying in through the back allies behind the sports complex. This is definitely one of my favorite parts of the race - narrow cobblestone streets. I pulled up the leaderboard and Sarah had moved from 7th to 2nd. She was mixing it up with the world’s best and making it a lot of fun to follow.
A mother and daughter came out of the apartment and offered me coffee while we waited for the first ladies to arrive. Sarah came through well in the top 10 and I helped crew her before she headed back out to the second half of the race. It was 4:30AM and the real race was about to begin. Getting to Courmayeur in one piece is the goal, with legs to handle the following climbs. I headed towards Grand Col Ferret but without an “A” media pass I was stuck parking 2+ miles down valley. I decided to take the trail instead of walking the road and ended up on a climb to Rifugio Bonatti which is earlier on the course and not as high. An excellent choice for several reasons but mainly that Ferret was in a dense blanket of clouds and Bonatti was in the clear with stunning views. I was well behind the leaders but caught all the women as well as a broken down Jim Walmsley and a few other favorites who were having a tough day. Sarah was dropping a few spots on the leader board so I wasn’t sure what was going on. Cat Bradly has passed her on the climb out of Courmayeur before Bertone. Finally, she arrived 20 minutes after her ETA and she wasn’t moving well. She had a case of vertigo that caused her to stop eating because of nausea. Not good. Not good at all. If you stop eating the wheels fall off fast and there’s really no recovery. She took another 20 minutes at the Bonatti and continued on. I hoped she’d bounce back but recognized the hurt she was in. Nothing much I could do but move along and drive back to Chamonix.
Back in town I was exhausted. The night caught up with me and as much as I wanted to sleep, I wanted to go find the leaders who were about to enter Trient, Switzerland. I thought I could make the drive so started that way. Unfortunately there was a car accident so I turned back to Sarah’s and waited out the traffic. There was only one option to catch the men and the finish so I headed to Buet and watched the top three men and then went back to the finish. I watched Xavier come through and take the win, unchallenged after Zach Miller dropped. Second place came through a little while after and I headed back to the car to go cover the women’s race from Tre-le-champ. The women’s race was much closer and more exciting with a couple Americans in the top 10. When they all passed through it was back to the finish to wrap up the coverage.
So there’s the long-winded behind the scenes of what it’s like to cover-crew-spectate such a big race. That night I was able to get to bed before midnight and sleep until 8am. From there I had the chance to shoot some photos with Hillary Girardi and Katie Schide, two rising stars who now live over in Europe but spent time working at the AMC Huts.
My last day in France was actually spent mostly in Switzerland, hiking and running with Corrine on an improvised loop from Vallorcine. It was incredible as the clouds lifted and we were swooped on by a bearded vulture. From there it was a race to the airport that involved a couple hiccups getting the rental car returned without paying the swiss vignette which would have been a rip off ($40). I doubled back and took the congested route though Geneva but I had time to kill before my flight.
All said and done it was an incredible trip. Every trip over there I continue to learn a lot and expand my comfort zone in the Alps. Next year I hope to race, perhaps TDS and have points for UTMB 2020. Here’s a little highlight video from the race with more to follow.