I can’t say I’m a big fan of math, but I’ve found it helps pass the time when running a long distance. Trying to figure out my average pace (without looking at the GPS), how long it will take me to reach the finish line or the next aid station, by how much I will beat the cutoff (or not). I’m getting pretty good, too, at converting kilometers into miles.
But as I stood at Colle Del Turlo, the final high point of day two, I was really hoping my math was completely off.
The Ultra Tour Monte Rosa (UTMR) was the first race I signed up for in 2015. It was also my first stage race–a race across multiple days. My first true international race (yes, Canada is not the United States, but as far as travel goes, it’s as close as you can get to staying home without actually staying home). The days between paying the entry fee and boarding the plane to Geneva put molasses in January to shame.
This was the zero edition of the race, something else that was new to me. I just assumed the first running was the first edition. For me, a new race is appealing, with more potential for unforeseen challenges. This one, it turned out, had an incredible crew behind the scenes, and it went off pretty much without a hitch. The race was three days, beginning in Cervinia, Italy, and ending in Grachen, Switzerland. It promised spectacular views of the Monte Rosa mountain range, home of the Matterhorn and Dufourspitz, the highest peak in Switzerland and second highest in the Alps. I would see both during Part Due of this trip.
My friend, Linda, who had crewed for me in Zion, had also decided at the last minute to join me for the race, for the trip if not the actual running. We met up in DC and boarded the plane. An understaffed flight meant free alcohol for the entire trip, and it wasn’t long before we were singing along to the golden oldies supplied by the seat radios.
We spent a couple days touring Geneva (I was thrilled the French I had learned for another trip was holding up) before boarding the bus to Cervinia. Transportation was our first learning curve. In Geneva–all of Switzerland for that matter–public transportation was a science that bordered on a work of art. Not so much in Italy. We did find bus routes between the cities of the race, but we were hoping for something more reliable.
I had reached out on Facebook a couple weeks prior and had received a couple of responses from people with a spare seat, but had not finalized any arrangements. Fortunately, what they make lack in public transportation, the Italians make up for in hospitality and genuine friendliness. By dinner the evening before the first day, Linda had secured a ride at least to Macugnaga. Which, while a huge relief, Macugnaga was the one place where we could not figure out how to get her back out again. I like to be prepared, especially when it comes to my friends (who wants to be friends with someone willing to desert you an a small Italian village?), but for now, it was the best we could do.
Fabio and Daniella were the stereotypical perfect Italian couple. Fabio was dark complected with a perfect runner’s body. Daniella was as beautiful as her name, dark hair and lovely eyes. She spoke five languages, which came in handy in this area–on the last day of the race, whenever a hiker would step to the side to allow me passage, I would murmer “Grazie, Merci, Danka and Thank You,” not certain which language would be understood.
So the next morning at 6am, Fabio and I toed the line, while Linda and Daniella cheered. This was the shortest day, at 16 miles. In addition to a map and GPS, I had an Italian language app on my phone, just in case. But the trail was perfectly marked and the weather even more perfect. Each day contained two high points, with an aid station between them. With the lower elevation, I easily kept up on the uphill, but quickly fell behind these mountain goats on the downhills. I was still done a couple hours before I expected. Fabio was well ahead of me, and Daniella and Linda, driving the steep winding roads showed up a few minutes later.
We were spoiled by having almost the entire afternoon to relax. The bus ride the day before had gotten us to Cervinia late in the afternoon. The packet pickup and obligatory gear check took another couple of hours. We had just a few minutes to relax before dinner at 7pm. I was doing my best to not be completely stressed out, but quickly lost that battle. It took the race actually beginning before my nerves finally calmed down enough for me to say without lying that I was having fun.
An amazing lunch of ravioli and fondue was followed by a gondola ride up to a glacier lake. We had the unbelievable luck of staying with our new Italian friends in a beautiful bed and breakfast. I sat while the other three walked to the lake and back. We took a few minutes to enjoy a drink before taking the last gondola back down.
Our three other suite mates had settled in by the time we returned. Another perfect coincidence: it was the Cecilia, the other person who had responded to our plea for transportation. She was there running with her good friend, Sylvia, and crewed by Riccardo, another good friend. All Italians, they were currently living in London. It was Sylvia’s and Cecilia’s first stage race as well. Sylvia had extended her day by getting lost a couple of times–I knew her pain.
Dinner was another wonderful affair, the five of them slipping easily between Italian and English, Linda and I doing our best to hang on to the English parts, exchanging bemused looks. I was envious of the lingual skills, and the ease in which they all became fast friends. I was fading quickly quickly with the wine, rich food and lack of sleep, but managed to make it through dessert. Even an Italian espresso did not keep me from sleep that night.
Another 4:30am wake-up and 6am start. Linda got up to see me off, then unapologetically went back to bed for a more reasonable wake-up and breakfast. Another straight up climb out of the village. Another spectacular sunrise over the Italian Alps. Another day devoted to nothing but running. I could not imagine it growing old ever.
The aid station that day is one that will never be met in terms of quality. Meats and cheeses, squares of sugar, petit fours, muesli–even wine!–everything but the normal packaged tasteless bars normally associated with a food station. I didn’t want to leave. It didn’t help the biggest climb was yet to come.
I fortunately knew that and was prepared. At the race briefing, they had assured us the highest point was the first one. What they didn’t mention was the aid station in between was three thousand feet lower than the start, so the thousand foot difference, still left and extra two thousand feet of climbing for the last half.
And an extra six miles of running.
Which is why I was standing at the pass, hoping my math was wrong. If it was correct, I had four thousand feet of elevation to lose in two miles. It also meant I had missed the last aid station, which was a few kilometers before the end of the stage. Which pretty much meant I was lost.
But the now familiar pink dots and black dotted pink flagging were obvious, so I knew lost was not an option. The day would be long, at least at that point I was hoping. I would take a couple extra miles over that much drop in that little distance. With my lack of downhill skill, it would take a lot less time.
My only glimmer of hope was overhearing someone mention that the pass was ten kilometers (six miles) from the end of the stage. It made the day four miles longer than it was supposed to be, but made the downhill much more bearable.
So I began the relentless downhill, switchback after switchback. A couple I had passed long ago on the uphill quickly overtook me on this terrain. I was battling my internal impatience. All I knew for certain was I had four thousand feet to lose. I had no idea how many miles–and therefore how many hours–it would take. I just ran and stumbled best I could. I turned up my music and stepped into the moment. I ran and ran and kept running.
The six miles was beginning to look like a reality.
Finally, miraculously, after five miles, the aid station came into view. Another mile to go. It was already past three o’clock–no leisurely lunch and tour today. “Just another five kilometers to go!” chirped the aid station attendant. Wait, what? That’s three miles, not one. I still had another three miles to go?
I did. And of course the last kilometer was uphill. For some unknown reason, it became critical to run that last kilometer, end the day running. I passed the couple at the beginning of the final kilometer. I saw them begin running again, which only pushed me to go faster. At that moment, I didn’t care I had one more day of this. I just wanted to be finished and in front of my pasta dinner and wine.
Fabio had finished just ahead of me, looking as ragged as I felt. Riccardo asked me how the day was. The endorphins had kicked in–or maybe hypoglycemia–and I told him it was an amazing but tough tough tough day. Amazing maybe that I had finished. Daniella and Linda told me that people were walking across the finish line and dropping their chip into a bucket–taking themselves out of the race.
I wanted to wait for Sylvia and Cecilia, and I didn’t want to move, but Daniella was our ride to our room a mile (uphill) away, and I didn’t want to delay them. Our luck had not held and all of us were in different hotels that night. I had seen the two ladies early in the day, but not again. The extended cutoff time for the extra miles meant the Cecilia made the cutoff but Sylvia missed it by a hair. Sylvia immediately dropped, but Cecilia took the evening to think about it before deciding to try again the next year. London is a hard place to train for a race with this kind of elevation. It speaks volumes to their tenacity that they made it through the two days.
The last day came the earliest. Daniella had decided to make the drive to Grachen and Linda and I were grateful, both for the ride and for more time with these dear people. I had no design on the day, happy and sad it was the last day. I had easily made the cutoffs so far, so my plan was simply to enjoy whatever the day brought.
The first pass came and went quickly if not easily, and welcomed us back into Switzerland. Comparatively, I was moving more quickly than many of the others and found myself passing different people than I had the two days prior. We had to bring our passports with us (I had had it with me the whole time anyway, afraid to leave it anywhere), in case of a border patrol at the pass, but all we saw were clouds. And gondolas–it didn’t seem fair that people could simply ride to where we had just run.
The aid station was in Saas Fee, a Swiss town know for perennial skiing on the glacier. The people in warm winter clothing and ski boots were a sharp contrast to the runners in shorts and t-shirts. I had pretty much worn the same outfit every day, switching out my t-shirt and sports bra only, but keeping the same long shirt, jacket and leggings. The up-to six thousand feet of elevation difference made it hard to predict the weather, and I’d much rather be over- than under-prepared. I had managed a shower every day, but I still did not smell good. Another contrast to these skiers.
As I left the station, I was warned of an imminent “terribly technical, very exposed” section. I swallowed my panic, exposure being my nemesis. My legs were shaky at best. I wasn’t going to turn around at this point, so I had no choice but to face it. And worrying wasn’t going to do me a bit of good.
The final leg of the journey was of course the longest. Fabio had been at the aid station while I was there, then I didn’t see him again, and assumed he was long gone. The course weaved in and out of gulleys. As each far edge was reached, more of the trail revealed itself, each time a little higher than before. Again and again and again.
I turned yet another corner and saw the sign, warning of the exposure. I looked at the section. Really? That’s it? I was equally relieved and annoyed–I had dealt with way worse without a thought. But I still held on to the proffered handline, not willing to risk karma.
Finally, finally. We reached the second high peak of the day. The second aid station was a short ways down and was managed by the race director, Lizzy Hawker’s mother. I had been reading Lizzy’s book “A Short Story About A Long Run” and told Lizzy’s Mother that she had an amazing daughter. She gave a short laugh, and said in a clipped British accent that she was a bit odd as well. I laughed as well and said my dad said the same about me.
Another two kilometers and the finish line. The race was supposed to have been four days, but in that moment, I did not mind at all. I crossed the last of the prayer flags and I was done. Linda, Daniella, Cecilia, Sylvia and Riccardo were there to receive sweaty, happy hugs. My crossing before Fabio added to what I found out was Daniella’s great concern. She flitted around nervously until Fabio finally appeared. Linda brought me a glass of wine and the most delicious melted cheese snack. Pure heaven.
Dinner and awards that evening. We all met the next morning for a goodbye espresso. We had already found each other on Facebook and were mentioning upcoming races sure to be of interest to such a strong, passion group. It made the goodbye less difficult turning it into “until the next time”.