“Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want”
This pretty much sums my race at Ultra Tour Monte Rosa (UTMR). It’s been a week since the event, and there’s still a dull tightness in both my quads — like when you lift weights and are sore for days after. Just a subtle reminder of what ensued on Thursday, September 12, 2019.
What is UTMR?
Ultra Tour Monte Rosa (UTMR)
Distance – 170KM (106 Mi)
Elevation – 11,600 Meters (38,058 Feet)
Altitude – Race starts at about 6,000 feet, goes up to approximately 12, 000 feet at the highest point, and then ends at 6,000 feet
UTMR is a mountain race through and through! Which brings me to where I live: St. Louis, Missouri, 535 feet above sea level. What in the world would possess my flatlander arse to pick this race? Simple answer: Impending failure, or to put it another way, I wanted to see how close to the edge I could push myself before crash and burn happened. (Yeah, I like that better. Let’s go with that!)
You see, there is something extremely beautiful and gut wrenching about willingly doing something that has failure written all over it. But, like most things in life, when 99 percent of the times things fail, there is that 1-percent chance that you could succeed. So, I had that 1 percent going for me!
Sometime in mid-summer of 2018, I was talking to Jason Poole, a good friend of mine, as I counted my points to enter UTMB and immediately turned to tell him I couldn’t. My reasoning: Too many freakin’ people; I wasn’t sure I wanted to deal with 2,300 people and the circus it would cultivate. Jason’s response: Don’t do it! Followed by, “You should run UTMR, you’ll like it. It’s B.R.U.T.I.F.U.L and only 300 runners!”
I had been following UTMR for a few years but never really thought I’d run it. Conversation with Jason ended, and I scanned through the UTMR website. I looked at the pre-registration requirement for the 170 KM Ultra Tour, and I had not run any of the races listed, but I had run Cruel Jewel 100 the past May and that was going to be the race I was going to qualify with. Cruel Jewel 100, although not a mountain race, still
gets 33,000 feet of gain and 33,000 feet of drop, so that is what I had — plus the few 100-mile mountain races I had run in the USA to qualify me (I hoped).
Right around then, I sent Luigi Terzini, another friend of mine, a note asking him if he wanted to run UTMR. Luigi is from the region, so I thought maybe he’d join me — and just like that Luigi was in. Fast forward January 2019; we both applied as soon as the pre-registration for UTMR opened. Then, we waited and waited until one afternoon I got the email confirming I had been selected to run UTMR in September 2019. And as did Luigi. Exciting stuff!
The next eight months revolved around mandatory gear list, passports, coordinating flights, hotel accommodations, and an endless back and forth of emails, texts, and phone calls between myself, Luigi, Jason, who also decided to join us, and Martien Vadersmissen. Martien is a good friend whom I met in St. Louis while her family had relocated to USA for work. Since then, they had moved back to Switzerland and she became a liaison for Luigi and me with race preparation and logistics. It was like the universe was working in my favor. Everything just seemed to fall into place!
Except, I had been nursing a peculiar acute pain in my right heel for which I had seen a few specialists. Eight weeks of rehab later and the diagnosis wasn’t clear, but I continued to train as the decision to run UTMR had been made regardless of how much of a pain in the rear my heel was being. I won’t bore you with the details of my training — just know that I climbed a LOT!
Sometime in July 2019, I finally found out that I had a bursa at the insertion point of my Calcaneus and Achilles. Per doctor’s orders, no eminent damage could come from running UTMR except I’d need to manage the pain that came from climbing and some downtime was in order upon my return from the race. Pain is relative when you run distance!
On September 1, my bags were packed and Luigi and I boarded the plane to fly to Geneva, where Martien was picking us up. We spent a couple of days exploring Lake Geneva before we made our way to Grächen to check-in and prepare for the race. Mandatory gear check, bib number, and tracker collection later, Luigi, Martien, Jason, and I met up for some pizza and beer before calling it a night. I was nervous!
Luigi and I got back to our sleeping quarters and started to lay out gear for race morning. As I pulled out my bladder to fill it up with water, I noticed my pack was soaking wet. Upon close inspection, there was a hole in my bladder from which the water was leaking. I panicked! Luigi suggested I empty, dry, and tape/patch the hole in the bladder before filling it up again. I did as was suggested and went back to fill the bladder for the second time. It was still leaking! WTF!?! Had I taped the wrong side? Looking at the bladder closely, I realized the hole went in one side and out the other. So, I repeated the empty, dry, tape process and filled the bladder up for the third time. The bladder seemed to be intact and hold water just fine without any leaks. The little voice in my head: How long will this hold? I guess we’ll find out tomorrow, as I start to run.
After the usual restless night of sleep before any big race, the alarm went off at 3 a.m. Thursday, September 5. Bladder check and last-minute prep. Then, we made our way to the town center for the race to start. A couple of things were grinding on me: I felt overdressed, my pack was particularly heavy with all the mandatory gear, water and fuel, and the most unnerving thing was the weather forecast for the race that had gotten progressively worst, calling for rain, sleet, and snow during the first night into day two of the race. It will be what it will be!
After a quick pre-race photo, Jason, Luigi, and I exchanged well wishes. Just like that, the race had started. Both Jason and Luigi took off as I moseyed my way with the mid-pack from the start line into the dark, foggy, and chilly morning. The first 10K of the race was a bit of a blur, as I focused on my footing in the dark and staying steady with the rest of the runners that I found myself pacing with. Then, it began!
We started to climb. It was still dark, trekking poles came out, and in the beam of my headlamp I could see my breath as we ascended 4,300 feet in just a couple of miles. It was a never-ending climb! I remember internalizing to brace myself, as the worst is yet to come and I could do this just as long as I keep moving, one step in front of the other is all it takes. I needed to make the cutoff to Zermatt and then just keep plugging at it. By the time I neared the top of the climb, the first light of day had slowly begun to peer through the mist and fog. I stopped at the top to fill up my handheld with water from one of the springs and chatted with a few of the runners as they made their way up. As I began to run once again, I fell behind Erwin Bennett from Panama City. He joked about how he thought he had trained for hills, yet that climb had just about done him in. I stopped to take photos and Erwin peeled away. The scenery before me was truly breathtaking! I found myself running alone through meadows surrounded by mountains and in that moment, I stopped, closed my eyes, and I took a deep breath.
This was my “the hills are alive with the sound of music and my heart wants to beat like the wings of the birds” moment! But the moment was short lived, as I heard some bells in the distance, fast approaching. As I slowly turned to look in the direction of the sound, all I could muster was, “Whaaat!?!” There was a herd of about 15 Swiss mountain goats heading toward me. Oh shit! They really were CHARGING right at me! I started to run, and they switched directions from the hills to follow me. In a state of sheer panic, I found myself no longer running on the trail but headed straight for the drop, and the realization that pretty soon I was going to run out of ground space and perhaps fall to my death or have to fight of the heard of goats quickly gaining on me. There was no out running them. Just then, another runner came bounding around the corner and the goats stopped, a bit distracted by the added human presence. The runner stopped as he noticed the scene before his eyes, I yelled out to him and hoped he spoke English.
Me: I don’t know what to do? They are charging at me.
Runner: You have to yell at them. They want to fight you. So, yell out loud at the goats.
I’m not sure what I yelled, but I was banging my trekking poles and spouting out gibberish as I walked in the direction of the goats. Survival skills everyone should learn: how to scare mountain goats charging at you in the middle of nowhere!
Just like that, the goats began to retreat and then took for the hills. I jumped back on the single-track and ran as fast I could, not stopping until I hit Europahutte aid station (17.1km). I don’t remember what time it was, nor did I care. I filled up my water, grabbed a banana, and was in and out of that aid station.
The next stretch of the course was a bit treacherous, with three bridges and narrow stretches of rolling single-track cut into steep hillsides. But the views were incredibly breathtaking. The fog had cleared, and some sunlight and clear skies made it possible to see the vastness of where I was. The unmoving mountains in the distance stood towering all around, and in that moment I felt miniscule.
Past the first two rickety bridges, I fell in line behind Elaine Stypula, who was from Michigan and knew Jason. What are the odds? Of the 266 runners that started the race, only 10 of us were from the USA (and only four women) and here I was running with one of them — and to top it all, she was a fellow Midwesterner. I don’t remember much of this section of the course, as the miles went by quickly while Elaine and I exchanged stories. I realized perhaps I could hang with Elanie and we could both push each other and get through the night hours and perhaps finish together. We both hit Taschalp aid station (26.4km) and were informed we had an hour and a half to get to Zermatt, which meant we had to run 10.4km with enough time for gear change, grab micro-spikes to cross the glacier, and refuel to be ready for the night stretch.
I was famished by the time I hit Taschalp, and I threw down a couple of cups of broth and bread, grabbed a banana, and headed out towards Zermatt with Elanie. As we traversed the downhills, I noticed Elaine would fall behind, but she would catch up to me on the uphills and I would struggle to keep up with her. Before we made it to Zermatt, there was the Charles Kuonen Suspension Bridge to contend with. I recalled a conversation with Jason prior to the race when he had asked me if I was afraid of heights. My answer was no, but as I stood at the edge of the Charles Kuonen Bridge, I wasn’t too sure anymore. The longest pedestrian suspension bridge in the world is almost 500 meters long and 85 meters above the valley at its highest point. GULP!
Just don’t look down, I told myself. I slowly began to walk towards the other end, which looked like a spec from where I was standing. Somewhere on the middle of the bridge, I made the mistake of taking in the scenery around me. Everything seemed frozen in time, and I panicked. I felt vertigo and nausea about to hit me. I hurried toward the other side of the bridge and, once I got there, took a moment to collect myself. I did not look back once.
Just then, Elaine came up behind me and as we played catch up with each other, we made our way to Zermatt — 30 minutes ahead of the cutoff. Zermatt was a runner’s graveyard. So many runners had decided to drop there, and I knew there were a few behind us that would not make the cutoff.
As we rolled into the aid station, I lost Elaine, since she had a crew waiting for her there. She was in and out of Zermatt before I finished unpacking and then repacking my pack for the next stretch until Gressoney, where I would have access to another one of my drop bags. I wanted to stay with Elaine, but I also realized I need to make sure I had packed everything for the next stretch of the race. In that moment, I wished I had a crew! While I was changing my socks, I chatted with a few runners who mentioned the next stretch on the race was much harder but the cutoff would ease up. They bid me goodbye and headed out.
While I was trying to wrap up everything, I got up to get some food and noticed a substantial drop in temperature. The wind had picked up, and there were flurries in the air, so I went back to my drop bag and grabbed another jacket. As I sat there futzing with my things, a volunteer approached me and said I had 10 minutes to get out of there and to make sure I had all mandatory gear, as reports of fast-approaching bad weather were coming in. Time was slipping away, and I hadn’t even eaten anything. I had no time to eat, so I ended up dumping the food, grabbed a piece of bread and headed out of the aid station. I was hungry, but there was no time to hang there.
As I made my way through the town of Zermatt, a mountain resort town that lies below the iconic Matterhorn peak, the streets were bustling with tourists and people leisurely killing the afternoon. While I navigated the course markers through the town’s streets, I couldn’t help but wonder what the hell I was doing. Why am I here? I could be sightseeing but instead I’m lugging around the very heavy, extremely uncomfortable pack, my quads are on fire, I’m hungry, and the smell of food as I passed the restaurants was not helping my mental state.
I pressed on and tried to enjoy the scenery before me as I made it back onto the trail. As I headed up a steep climb, I came upon Erwin. I didn’t expect to see him there, but I guess like myself he wasn’t doing so hot. We started to pace together and chatted as we slowly climbed our way towards Gandegghutte. This seemed like a never-ending stretch! I was starving, low on calories. It had started to rain, which soon turned into sleet, and I could feel the cold in my bones. Ervin and I both stopped to put on our waterproof gear, and I threw down a bar and some cashew butter. Another mile later, Erwin announced he was feeling sluggish and had to dig into his emergency food ration. He sat on a rock to collect himself while I pressed on. I was about ¾-mile from Gandegghutte when I saw a conga line of runners coming down the trail towards me. In a state of confusion, I stopped and called out, “What’s up?”
It was a group of Spanish runners that tried to communicate to me that I needed to check my phone as they ran past me. I pulled out my phone and saw a few texts from the race organizers: weather reports followed by the dreaded message, “Race is cancelled due to inclement weather/snow and runners should make their way to the nearest check point.” Ugh! Should I try to go to Gandegghutte and take the ski lift into Zermatt or should I simply run downhill back to Zermatt?
Screw it! I decided to bomb the downhill instead. Trail conditions were getting slick; sleet had turned into ice, and there was a dusting of snow starting to line the single-track. Just then, I ran into Erwin once again. We both decided to make a B-line for Zermatt instead of following the original trail that we had climbed out of town a couple of hours earlier. By the time we got back to Zermatt, I was soaking wet, cold, and shivering. When we got to where the aid station was, there was nothing but a canopy left, along with three other runners we took cover and that’s when slowly other runners started to make their way back to Zermatt.
A thing I learned about international races is, when you put a bunch of runners that don’t communicate in the same language and the race gets cancelled, panic, confusion, and loud multitudes of language overload sets in. As important as language is for communication, it also creates barriers and divides people. In that moment, as we all tried to keep our shit together, I wished I spoke French or Italian or perhaps Spanish — anything other than just English and my mother tongue, Hindi. We finally got word that someone was headed in our direction to help us get back on a shuttle that would then take us to Grächen. It would be another 30 minutes before we could get a ride out of Zermatt. I was starving, and all I wanted was a cold beer, so Erwin and I ran back out into the cold rain to the grocery store a couple of blocks away from our base tent to get some food and beer.
At the grocery store, we found beer — and for the record, beer is BEER in any language! Then, an argument erupted over a hot sandwich, which to me looked like a chicken sandwich and Erwin claimed was a fish sandwich instead. Neither one of us could read French, so back nor forth did we go until I overheard another shopper call out to her son in English. I grabbed the sandwich and asked the woman to help us decipher exactly what kind of sandwich it was that we were about to devourer. It was a chicken sandwich! We checked out and inhaled the food even before we got back to the tent, and as we stood there drinking our beer, I offered the extra beer to another runner by the name of Enrico Romano from Italy. Enrico accepted the beer and then the below conversation ensued.
Enrico: Hey, you are the one my friend Marco saved from the goats.
Me: (spitting out my beer) Umm…Yeah, that was me and let’s not talk about that.
We both laughed at that and said cheers as we drank our beers! At some point, about 40 of us walked to the bus station at Zermatt and boarded the shuttle back to Grächen. It was dark, and there was an eerie silence during the shuttle ride back into town. Erwin and I walked together to our quarters, as we were staying the same building. We said goodnight, and I remember looking at my watch. It 9 p.m., and I was freezing. After cleaning up once my brain had thawed out a bit, worry started to set in as I realized Luigi and Jason had not yet made it back. They had both been well ahead of me. A few texts with Martien later, I was told that she was driving both Jason and Luigi back to Grächen. I was relieved to hear they were both alright, and I crawled into bed.
Luigi got back to the cabin sometime around 3 a.m., and we exchanged a few words before we both passed out. Just like that, it was a new day and the race was over! The next morning, we packed up our bags, dropped off the timing chips, and checked out of the cabins. I saw Erwin, and we exchanged contact information as we rolled out of Grächen after saying bye to Jason. Martien, Luigi, and I headed back to Montreux. The next few days were spent with Martien and her family as we visited Montreux, Vevey, Lake Geneva, Lausanne, and Gruyeres while doing all the touristy stuff. We spent our last day in Geneva sightseeing before catching the flight back to the USA.
It’s hard to describe my experience and how I feel. There is a lingering feeling of incompleteness. What if? Would I go back and finish the race? Will there be a different outcome the second time around? How bad do I want to run UTMR?
There are a lot of mixed emotions and feelings: a longing of sorts, maybe not so much to finish but to be able to see what lay ahead of me and perhaps a finish line seal. The end is what we all strive for — conclusion, closure — but perhaps some things in life are better left unconcluded.
There was so much beauty, simplicity, towering mountains, and unrelenting terrain that it’s hard to not have an end to this race. In the short 35 miles of the course that I got to run, I fell in love with this race; the Alps don’t compare to anything I’ve run here in the USA.
So, to answer the question of going back: it’s a bit complicated. I want to go back, but sometimes, time is just not in our favor. Maybe I’ll have another opportunity to run in the Alps some day!
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