Crewing at UTMB

This post is super long & also way over due but with all the traveling, I’ve been exhausted, it took a lot to even get my sponsored posts up, but I know this could be interesting to a lot of people so here we go.  On Friday, 26 August at 6:00pm Sean stepped to the line in Chamonix, France to run 170k and I was there to support and “crew” him.

Start & Finish Line UTMB

If you’ve been following either of us, you would know that Sean has run a lot of 100s this summer, in fact this was his 8th 100 of 2016.  All of which were building to this race, and of course Tahoe 200 in early September.

I’ll admit after AC100 a few weeks prior, I was burnt out on crewing and as we got closer to the race, I realized that there was no way this trip was going to be anything other than about the race.  Which meant I got more and more stressed out.

Honestly I’m not sure why I thought it was going to be different, but somehow, ever since we booked the trip in January, I had it in my head that we would actually be doing some sight seeing, etc. before the race and that it would be a vacation with the race in the middle. Unfortunately, this is not the type of race that you just show up for right before the start, get your bib and go run.  With over 2,300 runners in the UTMB race along, it’s quite a production and requires a lot more time than a race here in the states.

As soon as we made it to Chamonix on Wednesday, we were starving so we headed to eat and then check out the Salon (what they call the expo).  It was fortunate that we did because there were specific times that you had to check in for each race and you had to take your pack with required items with you when you checked in to get your bib.  When we walked by the line was enormous so we decided to come back the next day (Thursday) to take care of everything.

When we did come back the line was much much shorter and it only took Sean about 20 minutes to go through the line.  First they check you in and give you a check-list of all the required items with 5 items that you have to take out of your pack.

UTMB Required Items

After you take the items out, someone checks them and then you sign off that you will have all the required items with you at all times.  From there you get in another line for your bib and then shirt.

Bib Pick-Up UTMB

As Sean waited to get his shirt, I went to get my bus pass validated. Since the race was going to go around the mountain into 3 countries, they said it was best if you just took the shuttle buses instead of driving around.  It was 30 Euro and you just needed to get it validated at the packet pick-up.

Another San Diego runner, Matt Whalen, was also running so Sean & I met up with him, his wife and dad.  They were super nice to let me join them for the start of the race on their balcony and then hang out with them (along with SD100 RD Scott Mills) for the first half of the race.  We met up after packet pick-up, had lunch and then watched some of the final TDS (another race of 119k) finishers come in.

Since the race started on Friday night, Sean slept as long as possible on Friday and then got ready so that we could get over to Chamonix at a decent time.  We were staying in a neighboring town called Les Houches (actually the site of their first aid station) so we had to take the bus over to Chamonix.  It was pretty crowded so we wanted to make sure we had enough time to get there and we did good, getting on the 3:30pm bus.  Buses came every 30 mins.  I was hungry and not in the best of moods so I was definitely anxious about getting on the bus and getting to Chamonix.

Once we got to Chamonix, we made our way to drop off Sean’s one allowable drop bag, which would be available at the halfway point in Courmayeur and then made our way over to Matt’s place so I could hang out with his family.  We eventually headed back over near the expo and met them there.  After a short while, we headed to their house and the guys headed to the start line.  It was already crazy and we still had about an hour until the actual start.

Sean & Matt before the start

Once we got back to their house, SD100 RD Scott Mills came over and was giving us some insight into his race the day before, he ran the very challenging 119k TDS.  We watched the actual start on his iPad and then ran to the balconies so we could watch everyone run through Chamonix on their way.  It was pretty cool to see all the runners come thru.  It was also funny because with 2,500(ish) runners they would run for a few steps and then be forced to a walk by the crowds.  I was fortunate to see Sean and he saw me as you can see in the video.

Once the last participant when through we packed up and headed out to catch the first bus to San Gervais, which wasn’t an official aid station, but the first on the route to the first assisted aid station at Les Contamines.  We didn’t have to wait too long until we got on the bus and then we were off.

The interesting thing about these buses is that they were run by each of the 3 countries, France, Italy & Switzerland so you never knew which bus you were going to get.  Some were definitely nicer than others and having air conditioning was a huge plus.

Once we got to San Gervais, we made our way into the town to look for a place for dinner & watch the runners come in.  We were super lucky to find a spot for 6 and close to the runners too.  This part of France there was a lot of beef and so many french fries, which I love, but it was so fascinating that everywhere you went they served french fries at practically every meal.  I had the  special with a very yummy steak, fries & a salad.  I felt 100x better after eating dinner.

French fries everywhere!

We were able to see Zach Miller, the lead American come through and then finally, Sean passed us without a glance, he didn’t realize we were going to be there.  The tracker showed Matt had come through already, but he took his time in the aid station and stopped to chat with us a few minutes later.

Then it was time to move on to the next aid station in Les Contamines.  This station we would be able to “assist” our runner.  Here, the aid stations are relatively small and in most cases, you are allowed inside the aid station to fill up bottles, grab food, etc. for your runner. At UTMB, the aid stations were like mini cities.  You had to show and in most cases hand in a ticket that had the runners name and number on it.  They wouldn’t let you into the area until 10 minutes before the runner was supposed to arrive, according to their tracking. There were 5 “assisted” aid stations where I could see & help Sean.

Once inside the assisted area of the aid station, there were 2 parts, a section where you could assist the runner and then the food & beverage area.  At this aid station, I wasn’t allowed in the food & beverage area, which was really the only spot Sean wanted/needed to be.  They were heavily guarding the entrance to this section and I was told to move back by 3 people even when I was just trying to go behind the line.  It was crazy!

This particular aid station, Sean got his bottles refilled, did what he needed to do and made his way out the were I was.  I chatted with him for a few short moments and then he was off.  Matt wasn’t too far behind, although he was staying in the aid stations a bit longer than Sean.

After both of them came through, we waited for the buses to go back to Chamonix.  The way the buses worked was that they all originated in Chamonix.

There were 3 main buses, one going to San Gervais & Les Contamines, one going to Courmayeur and then a last one that went to Champex Lac (with a transfer in Orsieres), Trient & Vallorcine.

Since we were staying in Les Houches I had already decided that it would be best to just following the course and sleep at the aid stations.  I bought a fancy Helinox chair from REI and a waterproof Northface jacket and had super heavy backpack full of gear to keep warm.

UTMB Crew Gear

Probably the most important piece of equipment I had was the Tep Wireless mifi device that I had brought with my from the states.  I’ll do a full review shortly but it was amazing and so helpful!

In any case, I had decided to head to Courmayeur after getting back to Chamonix.  Matt’s family was staying in Chamonix so it was pretty easy for them to just go back and get some real sleep, but it was definitely going to be more of a challenge for me so this was easiest.  The first bus left at 1:00am and I was on it.

The aid station at Courmayeur was at the Forum Sports Center, which was very nice.  They had a nice indoor area where we could rest and a cafe that was literally open all night long, it was quite nice.  Also in the morning I watched speed skating & figure skating practices and there were real bathrooms.

I saw Zach Miller come speeding through around 3am, I think, and then some of the others before heading inside to get some sleep.  Unfortunately my back was in really bad shape (from my pelvis tilt issue) so I was in significant pain most of the trip and sleeping on the floor didn’t help.

Once I got up, I went outside only to see the best views.  It started out a little foggy and then as it cleared up the view of the mountain was spectacular.

Courameyer

I kept tracking Sean and he eventually came in around 10am, I believe.  He was happy to see me but not super happy overall because he had fallen around mile 40 and hit his knee on a rock.  It was really making it difficult for him to run the downhills.  He took a bit of time to get himself together and then got some food before heading out again.

Sean coming into Courameyeur

Side note: this was the most challenging aid station to get into.  Since it was inside there was a huge line of people waiting to get inside.  I finally pushed through and was like my runner is here.  They still had to do the whole computer thing and then finally I was able to get inside.  This was probably the most challenging aid station to get in to.

I waited with Matt’s family for him to come in and then we watched runners come in/out and the kids races while waiting for Matt.  He eventually came out about 45min – 1hr later.  After which we took a very long, hot and not fun bus ride back to Chamonix.  I seriously thought I was going to pass out on this bus, it was that bad.

We finally got off the bus and I was like if I jump in the river will someone catch me at the next bridge, LOL.  We ate a quick lunch and then we went back to their place.  I emptied out some of the stuff from my backpack, put in some new things from Sean’s drop bag and then we all took a nap.

Brooke & I then headed out to get some Gu for Matt and just happened to see the top 3 Americans, Tim Tollefson (3rd), David Laney (4th) and Zach Miller (6th) come in, which was super cool.  I got a great video of Tim Tollefson finishing in 3rd place.

Once we got back, I checked the tracking and Sean was coming much faster than was expected and it was going to take approx. 2 hours to get to Champex Lac so I very quickly made my way to catch the 5:30pm bus.

img_6705

There was a bus change in Orsieres and we had to take a city bus up a very steep & windy mountain road.  When we finally made it up to the aid station, it was going to rain so I took a quick walk down to some trails opposite of the race course.  I eventually walked down to get some dinner because it showed I had a few hours until Sean would get there.

Champex Lac at dusk before the rain

As I was eating my salad before my amazing pasta with chanterelle mushrooms, I was chatting with another runner from Thailand and then I refreshed the tracker and saw Sean was there! OMG I was going to miss him.  I went to the servers and told them Sean was there and I could pay them now and then come back but they were super nice and allowed me to just come back once I was done.

Near Champex Lac

I ran over to the aid station and made it just in time to see Sean walking to a table.  This aid station was pretty big in the back with a waiting area for the families and then you would hand in your ticket before going inside to see your runner.  It was really easy to see your runner.  I made my way over to him and we chatted for a bit, he had made a friend, Jan, who is from Slovakia but lives in North Carolina, and they were going to run together.  Since it was starting to rain we had to get his new Ultimate Direction waterproof jacket out.

When they were ready to go, I walked with Sean & Jan to the lake (my dinner was next door lol) and saw them off.  By this point it was dark, thundering & lightening and would be for a few more hours.  I ate and then raced over and just made the bus before it left to head down the mountain.

Pasta with Chanterelles

I eventually made my way over to Trient, which was the next assisted aid station.  It was raining when I got off the bus, I pretty much slept from the time we got on the nice bus until we got to the stop.  Once I got off the bus, I had to walk for a bit through the town to find the aid station, it wasn’t immediately clear but I figured it out. They had some nice portable bathrooms outside the aid station, they reminded me of some that we had on set of Dolphin Tale.

Once inside they too were having a bit of a party, with a vendor for beer & coffee and then you could order some food as well.  I was sitting there watching these guys with big wheels of cheese.  They heated the cheese and then scraped it off.  I found out it was a Swiss specialty called Raclette and they served it with some small potatoes. When I told them it was my first time trying it, they were like you have to try it because it’s a local speciality.  It doesn’t look like much but it was really yummy.

Raclette

It took Sean a bit to get there and when he did, he didn’t really need much, just to refill his bottles and then get some food.  He and Jan didn’t spend much time here – I went outside to see them off & get a photo.

Trient

Next stop was Vallorcine and it was the last station I could assist him at.  I met a few other American’s in the bus on the way there.  One of them was the wife of a guy who had also run Tahoe 200 and his sister.  We chatted on the bus and in the aid station until her husband came in. Sean & Jan were about a 1/2 hour later.  This station didn’t go quite as well for Jan.  He was having a lot of stomach issues and was struggling.  I got Sean all set up and then we waited so Jan could get a few minutes of sleep.  I told him he could have 5 mins & I think I gave him 3 before we pushed him to get some food and then get out.  Eventually I was like Sean needs to go, you either need to get ready to go or he’s leaving you and that got him moving.

After they left, I made my way back to the bus to head back to Chamonix.  Once in Chamonix I knew I was going to have a few hours until Sean came in, it was maybe 4:30am.  I went to a hotel near the bus station and asked them if I could get a taxi to our hotel.  This is not a big place where you can find a taxi easily.  And there is no Uber.  Fortunately I was able to find a kind soul who took me back so I could get a short rest before heading over to watch the finish.

Sean coming towards the finish

The first bus back to Chamonix was at 6:30am and I was intent on being on that bus.  I made it and into the city.  A cappuccino & croissant and I made my way to an area where I could see Sean come in and then be at the finish line quickly.  I watched a bunch of people come in, run to the finish with their families and and then finally I saw that familiar gait coming towards me.  I got a few photos and then headed over to the finish line where I was able to get a pretty decent video of Sean crossing the finish line.

And then 39 hours and change after he started he made it across the finish line. It was pretty awesome to see!

We took a few photos at the finish before heading over for a coffee to celebrate with Jan.

Treats at the finish

Now that we’ve been back for a few weeks, I have had time to reflect on it and I was really fortunate to be able to be able to support Sean in Chamonix, I would do it again, hopefully not as our main vacation of the year though, unless we could stay for longer.  I also would want try to run one of the races, most likely the OCC, myself so I could experience the trails as well.

One thought on “Crewing at UTMB”

  1. Wow this is awesome! I’ve heard about this race before and can’t believe he was able to run it. Tell him he did a great job! And you were so badass for crewing for him! It sounds like you were running around a bunch too!

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