The dust is beginning to settle and the UTMB hangover is weaning, which has allowed bits of my brain to piece together the most recent race I completed, THE TDS® — a 123km race in fairly technical trail, with 6700m of elevation gain.
My training for this race, led by Andy DuBois, seemed a lot more intense than last year. I had longer hours, more vertical gain and lots of time on my feet. It was tiring at some points but I had a goal in mind. Weeks and weeks of training, weekends spent training instead of doing “normal” things became my staple for a good 6 months.
I decided to stay in Courmayeur this time. It’s a nice town and a fresh change. Did one small hike up the first climb and that was it. It was rest, eat, sleep till race day with a few little short runs.
Since 2015, this was the first race that I was running with a morning start, which did push me a little out of my comfort zone. The previous races that I had run had either 11pm or 6pm starts. To add to the drama, there was a change in start time and course too, due to weather conditions. Starting at 8am wasn’t ideal, as it meant starting the race and running through the valleys as the weather began to get warmer. But one had to roll with the punches, which ended up being the overall theme of the race.
I pushed off at a steady pace up the first climb and got stuck in a bit of traffic but didn’t mind. Reached Lac Combal about an hour before cut-off, which was what I expected. Here’s where something strange happened…
After Lac Combal, I completely forgot the race course and profile — something which I had been looking at for months. I knew that I had a climb and a descent, and it would take me about 4hrs to the next checkpoint. Apart from that I was completely blank. Maybe it worked in my favour, as I wasn’t overly distracted.
We got hit by the first storm much earlier than expected, as we were heading to St Bernard. By this time, we were in wild country and the scenes were magnificent. I’ve never felt so tiny in my life, as I saw the massive curtain of rain approaching me with mountains in the background. I reached St Bernard with drenched shoes, socks and shorts. We were only 40km in and I was beginning to feel a bit of a dip in my energy.
The descent to Bourg St Maurice is probably the longest downhill I’ve ever done — about 12km and 1200m of descent. I’m not very good at downhills, so this was a section I really didn’t quite like. I took my coach, Andy DuBois’s advice to take it easy and allow others to overtake, which I did. After what seemed like forever, we finally hit Seez and onto Bourg St Maurice. Here’s when trouble started.
As I reached Seez, my left knee began to seize up. I couldn’t bend it much and was beginning to limp a little. Self-doubt began to creep in and I even had thoughts of quitting at this point. I had to fight it and tell myself, “as long as I am moving forward, I’m making progress.” — this was the mantra that eventually got me through the race. My aim was to get to my drop bag at Roseland and get out of there as quickly as possible, to avoid any thoughts of quitting. Small marginal gains was how I thought I would get through this rough patch.
Counting To 20
If I had to choose between a steep hike and a 5% gradient on road that goes on for 5km, I would take the former. Unfortunately, we received the latter as we headed into Roseland. It’s one of those gradients, where slow runners like myself can’t really run all the way. I was bonking a little at this point and wasn’t feeling great about the world. Trying to find anything positive was a challenge, so I devised a little game for myself, called “Count To 20.” I would count to 20 while running, then count to 10 while walking and repeat it for as long as I could. It helped break the distance down to smaller numbers in my head and keep me focused till I reached Roseland, where I was greeted by the amazing volunteers dancing to Macarena. Happy Days! I was tempted to dance but risked cramping up.
Pushing On Through The Night
In my slightly dazed state, I didn’t change my socks and got out of the checkpoint after a 20min stop. This time, I told myself to look after my nutrition a little more. I was halfway there, still a long way to go but some of the worst parts were over, or so I tried to fool myself into thinking that way.
Here’s how the night section looked and felt to me:
Mud. Rock. Slipping. Fog. Rain. Falling. Getting Up. Moving Forward. Climbing. Descending. Mud. Rock. Mud. Rock.
The slow moving pace was frustrating initially, but eventually I found a sense of peace in this slowness. These are moments when ultramarathon running begins to unravel it’s beauty. Through this journey, there is a point where we cross over a threshold of pain/frustration to emerge into a peaceful, singular-focused approach. At that point, I think I had gone into that state. Some may call it delirious, I call it peaceful.
On hindsight, I wasn’t doing as bad as I thought I was. My pace and movement was fairly consistent. Positive thoughts were coming back. From here, it was game-on.
I have heard hushed rumours about Col de Tricot, affectionately known as “The Wall”. Little did I know how the climb would look/feel like until I was descending one side of the valley to see a stream of headlamps heading up towards a bright spotlight. Heading uphill is fine, except that these headlamps seem to be heading up ALMOST VERTICALLY. I said as many prayers as I could and took on the climb.
I have never climbed anything so steep in my life. As much as I told myself not to look up towards the spotlight, which never seemed to get closer, I always ended up having a look. At this point, dawn had broken and I could switch my headlamp off. I told myself, “It’s a new day, a fresh start. You can do this.” I had to dig deep and believe in myself that I could do this. Words can’t really explain the climb, so I dug up an image taken on a clear day. Here it is:
I pushed as hard as I could in the last 8km, which was relatively flat. My quads were shot at this point but I was beyond caring. Blasting some Devildriver helped me to push through. It was an amazing surprise to see fellow runner, Ian Lye, who came to see me run towards the finish. At the final bend, it was even better to see fellow local runners, Zen Chew and Mel Lim.
I was happy. There were lots of emotions going through me as I crossed the finish line. After having to work so hard and fight through so much self-doubt, pain, nausea, I was able to complete TDS in 25hrs 36mins in 425th out of ~1800 runners after starting at 1155 position. I set out to achieve a goal and completed it.
I feel a bit like a lost child at the moment. I’m not really sure what to do and where to go. The “UTMB Project” has been something on my mind since I first heard about it in 2011. In the past 7 years, I have had to qualify, train, travel and race to finally complete these 3 races I had wanted to. Is this project over? Probably not. Will I be back next year or the year after? Maybe not. While I am happy, this personal victory is a little bittersweet, or perhaps it’s just my post-race void mind that’s talking too.
It’s time to look for new adventures, new trails to run through and mountains to climb. One thing I’ve learnt in this wild and crazy race is that, we are so tiny in this vast world. We should never let our thoughts and egoes make us think that we are bigger or better than what we are, or nature will teach us a few harsh lessons.