It was a dark and stormy night in the Alps around Mount Blanc…really it was. The one hundred and three mile race Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc UTMB had been cancelled, and in a few more hours, the sixty plus mile race I was in the midst of running for the last 11+ hours was also going to be cancelled because of the extreme weather conditions. This would have been good information to have, as I climbed up and over the pass connecting the town of Trient to Vallorcine. A couple of hours earlier, I noticed I was getting a little cold on the climb over Bovine from Champex to Trient because of the relentless wind and rain. But, as soon as I descended the 2500 feet into Trient, I soon forgot about the chill on the ridgeline as the valley temperatures were closer to 50 degrees and the protection of the trees kept the heavy rain and wind at bay. Here is where I would make a critical mistake that would cost me the race.
I felt strong and confident that I could win this race. The course had taken us over four other major passes ranging from 7000 feet to 8500 feet, and then back down into the small villages that lined the valley that surrounded Mt Blanc, settling in at the valley floor around 4,000 to 5000 feet. I had run a solid 45 miles, and was ready to put myself into race mode and make my move on the final two climbs and descents that would bring me into Chamonix,. I felt confident that I could put distance on Maud Giraud, French trail running champion, who was my primary competition in the Courmanyer –Champex - Chamonix (CCC).
A quick in and out at the aid station in Trient proved to be that critical mistake. I felt a little sluggish on the downhill into Trient probably because of the chill on the ridgeline and the realization that I hadn’t been eating or drinking my normal amounts. The constant onslaught of the weather took me off my well-oiled race strategy of fluids, calories and electrolytes . I should have taken the time to change out of my wet clothes and put on a base layer, load up on food and drink but Maud was also in the aid station at the same time. I got caught up in the carnival like atmosphere that surrounds these key check points. It was a race to see who would exit first.
About an hour of climbing the pass out of Trient, I hit the ridge line around 7000 feet, right about the time the UTMB race, which started at 6.30pm, was being cancelled,. Rain drops the size of nickels were coming down in buckets. I quickly put on my waterproof coat, and struggled to stay on the trail as the wind gusts made it impossible to run a straight line. My body temperature was quickly dropping. I looked around for a place to stop and put on the extra layer I had stashed in my backpack, but there was not a place to get out of the rain and wind. The small chill that started turned into shivering as I realized I was in a dangerous position. Must find shelter. Typically at the top of each pass stood a stripped down checkpoint, maybe a tent or a tarp with no real supplies, just someone to scan in your number. I knew I must be close to one, so I put my head down and tried to move forward in the rain.
I had been in similar situations facing hypothermia twice before in my life – once in my twenties when I was on the swim leg of an Olympic distance National Championship Triathlon in Lake Mead, Nevada. A cold storm moved in the day before the race. I was one of the few racers who chose to go without a wetsuit, and found myself off course in the 3-foot swells, and fighting for my life. I was bordering on unconsciousness when a boat pulled me out of the water. I earned a ride in an ambulance, an IV and complete depletion for days afterward. I specifically remember my mental talk going from competitor to survivor. The only difference in this situation was that I wasn’t swimming, and wasn’t risking drowning although I was as soaked as I would have been swimming. While running, I took a moment to reflect on how thankful I was that I wasn’t swimming.
After what seemed like too long, I saw what I thought was a giant white tent. Stoked, I made my way toward it. Then it vanished, absorbed by the cloud and fog that made up this hallucination. Finally, after what I felt was a long spell, I saw a tarp set up that was open on three sides, but tilted in the direction that protected the volunteers from the driving wind and rain. As I approached, they looked at me curiously and asked a question in French. All I could say was “hot tea”. Thankfully they had a large thermos of warm sugary tea. I set myself down on the only chair and drank eagerly, my hands shaking as I tried not to spill the tea on myself. There were no other supplies, no blankets, and no food, only tea. I started to peel off my wet layers as best I could and struggled to get into my extra layers – leggings and a nylon jacket. Knowing that this post was no place to hang out as night descended on the ridgeline, I knew I had to get down to the valley where I would meet my crew and drop out.
Forever and a day is what it felt like it took me to go the five miles down to Vallercine. I could not get my legs to move. I was still chilled, but warmer than I was out on the ridge. My head was foggy and I struggled to stay focused on the trail. Night was falling, so I stopped and pulled out my headlamp. It seemed like people were flying by me. Most asked if I was OK, and I would nod, confident I would make it, but also looking forward to ending the race.
My running diminished to a plodding walk. I was about five minutes behind Maud on the ridgeline, but that then turned to 30 minutes as I sat in the shelter, pounding tea and then plodding down into Vallercine, the 50-mile point in the 61-mile race.
My crew of Ben and Sven, two product managers from The North Face Europe office, two all together great guys, were concerned but encouraging as I entered Vallercine. “I’m too cold on the ridgelines, and I fear the next two…I can’t stay warm” I said as I shivered in the aid station. “I’m wasted and can’t run.” “I want to stop” is what I kept telling myself, but I couldn’t say it out loud. “Let’s get you dry, let’s change your clothes, you’re so close, you can’t stop now”. I knew I only had somewhere between 10 – 12 miles to go…nothing really. I took off my soaking clothes, did a complete change, put on four layers on top, ate bread sausage, drank cup after cup of hot tea and grudgingly set out again. At least I had a chance of being warm and I was fed. Only a few more miles, shouldn’t take long, maybe I can warm up and start running again.
The second time I found myself in a near hypothermic state at an endurance race was a 100k race in the Marin Headlands with unusual driving wind and rain. I was staying on the edge of warm until the moment I ran through what appeared to be a mud puddle but turned into a deep pool. It went from ankle to thigh deep in one step, and I found myself face down and totally submerged. My “OK but wet” state quickly changed to “cold and starting to shiver.” Again, turning from a competitor to just wanting to survive, I was able to see my crew in about a mile. After clothing change and the addition of a heavy jacket, I trudged on. It took 20 miles to get my energy back, but when it came back, it roared back. And I ended up winning. So I knew it was possible to come back from a deep chill, I thought I just needed to be patient.
Four hours is what it took me to cover the last eleven miles. In that four-hour period, I saw an amazing almost full moon peek through the thick fog and clouds. I walked in what seemed like a river for a really long time. I followed the light of a headlamp which I thought must be a check point, up to the top of a ridge, only to find a man holding out a cup of tea speaking to me in French. As I reached for the cup, he pulled it away and said in English “the trail is down there” pointing with the now withdrawn steaming mug.
On the downhill I thought I could let gravity do it’s trick, and just let my legs roll. But they refused. The downhill’s turned into the same slow walk as the uphill, I was toast. At the last aid station, La Flegere, I took the time to change the batteries in my headlamp, not knowing how long it was going to take me to cover the last 7k of downhill. I must have looked as trashed as I felt. The ladies manning the station insisted that I drink a cup of chicken noodle soup. It sounded terrible, but I didn’t have the energy to refuse. So I drank it in one gulp, and then ended up re-experiencing it LIFO style - - Last in First Out after I crossed the finish line.
I keep asking myself why I became hypothermic…I’ve woken up in a 7 degree tent at 17,000 feet with a wind storm raging around me (Denali), I’ve been on the Alaskan Tundra pulling a 40 pound sled in minus 30 degree conditions in the middle of the night (Iditerod). I live in Oregon where a mid winter runs happen in snowstorms with temps can hovering in the low teens. But when it comes to heavy rain and running, or open water swimming in extreme conditions, I just don’t have the body fat to fight off the cold. Something I need to remember, and I know I won’t soon forget.
Although a disappointment, finishing third female in the CCC maybe one of my all time “hardest thing I’ve ever done.” Maybe dumbest too, as I was trashed for the next couple of weeks more so than any other endurance race I’ve run. But as any ultra runner’s mindset, maybe it was just good training - running after a hypothermic experience seemed equivalent to carrying a refrigerator on my back for the remainder of the race. Wonder how strong it made me.