Holy smokes, what a race! Between UTMF and TDS, my 2018 season has not lacked drama or entertainment. As a fan of sports and student of the game, it was so cool to be part of what is probably one of the closest races ever over such a long distance. Here's how it played out...
Leading into the race, I knew I was primed to have a really good day. My training went perfectly while my energy and motivation indicated I was prepared for a monster effort. The early miles felt easy and I eventually found myself in the lead of the race with spaniard Pablo Villa, just after the Bourg Saint Maurice aid station, around 50k. From there, the course suited my strengths with a half-marathon of steady climbing to the Cormet de Roselend check point. Pablo and I seemed to gain ground on the whole field through this section and I was feeling totally in control entering the high, remote section of the course, which I'd anticipated would be the crux of the race.
Pablo and I ran together for a couple more hours towards the next aid station at Col du Joly. I was still feeling strong, wondering when the hell one of us would begin to fade. It was at the Col du Joly aid station where I finally sensed vulnerability and felt I had an opportunity to get away. Often times in these races and at this level, separation happens in the aid stations. Pablo had no problem holding the pace on the trail but I sensed he wanted to spend a little extra time at the aid station upon arrival, so I got the hell out of dodge. I left alone and in the lead feeling like this was my moment.
It was at this point that a race official on an ebike rode ahead of me, escorting me down a service road on the ski area toward Notre Dame de-la Gorge -- a legendary point on the UTMB course. Roughly a mile later I noticed that there were no flags at an intersection with another service road and questioned my escort as to whether we were heading the right direction, he told me to continue downhill, which I did until I came to another nearby intersection -- this time a mountain bike trail. Seeing no flags, I knew I was no longer going the right way and had the sinking, panic-stricken feeling that this was happening at the exact moment it couldn't for the purposes of my race.
I took off my pack, pulled out my iPhone with the dowloaded GPS file and showed my escort that we'd missed a turn up the hill. Pablo soon came to greet us as we all stared at the map determining how to right our error -- none of us speaking the same language. Soon, another race official on a bike came blasting downhill cursing at my escort in French as he turned to show us the way back to the correct trail. As we approached what I could see was the flagged course, we saw Dmitry Mityaev charging downhill, now the race's leader. FUCK FUCK FUCK.
The whole incident probably cost me 5mins and Pablo a bit less, but it felt like an eternity. I briefly allowed myself to wallow in anger and self-pity before regaining my composure and my will to fight. I thought back to last year's UTMB, where my effort and self-management flagged in the final 30k and where my time and finishing place suffered mightily as a result. This time, I was resolved to put myself back in the race and battle for the win.
I lost a bit of time on Pablo and Dmitry on the descent to Les Contamines, but was consciously eating and drinking myself back into a strong physical condition in order to attack the final 25k and 4k' before the finish in Chamonix. I left Les Contamines 2mins behind Dmitry and just ahead of Polish powerhouse Marcin Sweric, whom I hadn't seen all day. I later learned that my early race companion, Pablo Villa, dropped at Les Contamines with a bad stomach, leaving the three of us to duke it out for the podium positions. And duke it out we did.
Long story short, Dmitry held the lead through the final aid station at Les Houches with Marcin a minute back and me another minute hence. Totally out of fluids and with a single caffeinated gel remaining, I knew my only chance was to blow right through the final aid station and charge the final 8k to Chamonix. I passed Marcin in the aid station but he quickly overtook me again looking like a man possessed. I cheered him on as he passed, knowing he'd soon catch Dmitry. I smashed my final gel and gave chase, hoping that Marcin made his move just a little too early. It's no lie to say I gave absolutely everything over those final miles, which makes me super happy. I caught Dmitry with less than a mile to go, running what felt like Vo2 max effort, but had nothing to match Marcin's closing kick. He ran an absolutely surgical race and is a very impressive and deserving champion. Dmitry too was a factor all day and proved his versatility over long and short distances. Look out for this young Russian in the coming years. In the end, only 103 seconds separated the three of us at the finish line -- the closest race for the podium I've ever heard of in an ultra.
Overall, I'm totally thrilled with my race and my result. I harbor no grudge towards my bike escort, whom I could tell felt very badly. The episode was another lesson that we must be totally self-sufficient in these races. It was my responsibility to stay on the correct course and I misguidedly delegated that responsibility, which cost me a few minutes. That said, there is a good chance I could have surged too hard in that moment to escape Pablo, only to get caught and passed but Marcin and Dmitry later. I will happily and proudly enjoy my 2nd place finish without entertaining those hypotheticals.
As a race, I can't recommend TDS enough. It is a proper mountain course that really challenged every facet of my game. I'd expect this race will continue to be a bigger competitive draw within the UTMB festival in coming years. Speaking of UTMB... HOLY SHIT. What a wild day. Props to everyone who confronted that beast this year, you will be part of history whether you finished or not. Can't wait to do it again next year.
Until next time...
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