From Forest Pain Cave to Surreal Ultra Rave: The End of My CCC

I’ve been writing a lot about my CCC race experience, but it’s been answering questions from Trail Runner, Trail Sisters, and Trail Runner again. And talking in this post-race I Run Far interview. And UltraRunnerPodcast.

In case you’re still curious, here are some of my own musings about the start and end of my CCC race. I have much more to say in general, especially about how much I thought about my motivations during those 12 hours. But for now, here’s just a tidbit about the race itself.

The Climb Out of Courmayer, Italy

I started with poles up the first, largest climb of the race. I was hauling ass. But near the top of the mountain, Maite Maiora passed me like I was standing still. Now for context, I shouldn’t have been surprised considering this woman has been unbeatable in recent years. Still, I stupidly asked, “Where are you from?” A guy behind both of us yelled proudly, “Espana!” I hunkered down for what I accurately surmised would be a long, painful, but exuberating race ahead.

Maite opted for the power-hike-hands-on-knees method to climb. I glared at my poles and realized they weren’t helping me. Back home on my Colorado training grounds, I reluctantly practiced with poles a handful of times and thought it sufficed as adequate pole training for CCC. It didn’t. I put the sticks away and didn’t take them out again until the tail end of the last climb.

>>Fast forward 90 kilometers, three countries, a liter of Coca Cola and 35 Honey Stinger gels.<< 

The Climb Up Flégère and Descent Into Chamonix, France

By the end of the last climb, I was leading the race, but running more scared than I ever had run in my life. I envisioned Maite just seconds behind me, waiting to pounce. I knew the poles would help me run up the final part of the douche grade climb, and they did.

Note: ‘douche grade’ means a steep climb, but not steep enough that you can’t run. Road or track runners turned trail runner usually love douche grades because they’re monotonous slogs and pure fitness testers.

Yet, at the end of a 100k in the Alps, running any grade was pretty difficult. I’m sure that most people power-hiked that climb on Flégère, yet, I couldn’t bear the thought of hiking so I whipped out my poles and ran. Thank you to Zach Miller for giving me this advice before the race: when he won CCC in 2015, he didn’t use poles at all, but said they would have been useful on that last climb. Zach, you couldn’t have been more right.

I think I surprised the lone spectator on that climb—a nice British man named David who told me it wasn’t far till the top. I was practically whining “Are you sure? 400 meters? What’s your name?” I have no clue what he looked like because it was already dark and the air was pure white mist. I could barely see five feet ahead of me. Not that it really mattered because I was just focusing on moving as fast as humanly possible and one eye had been fuzzy for the past 20 miles after taking a hard fall in a downhill section of mud hell. My eye with the clean contact focused on the rocks below my little feet that were pattering away slowly, but laboriously—the way one finishes an ultra even when leading. I thought to myself: I can’t be preyed upon. I won’t let up.

I hit the top of the last climb, still unaware of how close Maite was, but determined that there was no possible way for her to catch me if I: 1) didn’t fall, and 2) went all out.

Coalescing these two objectives in a two-foot visibility misty darkness wasn’t the easiest task in the world. I had to take my headlamp off my head and hold it directly above my feet to ensure that I could see the trail and stay upright. In doing so, I froze my hand solid, but remembered that mountaineers get frost bitten hands and feet often and still summit; thus, I sucked up my chilly thumb. Going all out meant that I was repeating to myself over and over “Keep on going. Don’t slow down. It’s impossible she’ll catch you.”

This slew of positive mantras is how I operate best while racing and it proved to work well at CCC.

Exiting the trail section into the edge of Chamonix was one of the more surreal experiences of my life. It gives me chills writing about it now. The course changed from a eerily lonely and quiet forest pain cave of misty darkness to a glowing, energy teeming city of incoherent ultrarunning fans.

At this point, I knew I’d won the race and an Italian friend Paco was on the pavement with other cheerers to confirm that I only had a few minutes of running through the crowd-laden streets before crossing the finish line.

I thought to myself, “Am I going to cry?” But I didn’t feel anything related to happy tears; I was too tired and had no energy for emotion. Well, I guess I had just enough energy to dance and high-five my way through that final chute and to grin like a loopy puppy.

I can’t wait till I’m once again a loopy puppy in Chamonix.

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PC: Guillem Casanova Bosch
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PC: Guillem Casanova Bosch
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Super crew Dad!
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Mid race chaos. PC: Guillem Casanova Bosch
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Leaving the last aid station with only 3 minutes gap on Maite.
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Made it. PC: Guillem Casanova Bosch
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PC: Kirsten Kortebein
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PC: Kirsten Kortebein
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PC: Kirsten Kortebein
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