Back in August of 2022, Dr. Mike made the trek out to Europe for a chance to compete in the UTMB Ultra Trail Series TDS race. Read about his journey to the start line and what his adventure taught him as he looks ahead to 2023 adventures.
About The Race
For those of you not aware, The “Sur les Traces des Ducs de Savoie” or TDS is part of a series of races called the Ultra Trail Du Mont Blanc or UTMB. The UTMB races are widely considered to be the World Championships of ultra trail running each year. Runners from all over the globe come to Chamonix, France at the base of Mont Blanc to experience some of the most scenic and spectacular trails in the world. There are several different race distances and challenges all with their own qualifying criteria to get into. If you meet these specific qualifications, you either need to enter the lottery or have a high enough ranking to be considered “elite”, which would give you the chance to bypass the lottery.
In 2017, I was lucky enough to be able to go and run the CCC (the 100K event of the UTMB series) and had such an amazing experience that I could not wait to go back. So in 2020, my wife, Allyson, and I decided it was our time to pull the trigger to try to enter one of these events, and make an amazing vacation out of it. However, the world had different ideas and despite being in a place where I was able to bypass the lottery for TDS and guarantee myself an entry, a pandemic struck the world and the race was canceled. However, we were guaranteed an entry to any of the next three years so we were hopeful we could make something happen and be able to go in the future. In 2021 with uncertainty still surrounding the pandemic and welcoming our daughter in March of 2021, we decided it would not be a good time. But in 2022, we went for it. We booked a place in Chamonix and I signed up for the TDS (145 km). I was so excited to be on the cusp of heading back to this amazing place, and even more excited to share the experience with my wife.
In order to prepare for the race, I knew I would have a few factors that would be hard to replicate in La Crosse, WI. The first would be the elevation gain and loss. The course is 145km (approx 90 miles) and includes 9100m (nearly 30,000ft) of elevation gain. That means that during the course of the 90 miles, I would climb the height of Mount Everest, and have nearly the same amount of elevation descent to do as well.
When you live in the Midwest, preparing for that type of elevation gain and loss can be very challenging. I am grateful to live in La Crosse where we at least have the bluffs which provide 400-600 foot climbs to give me something more than just flatland to train on, but it is not quite the same as the mountain ranges in Europe.
On top of elevation and climbing, I also knew that the other big factor that would be hard to control for was altitude. The race tops out just below 9000’, but you spend a decent amount of time above 5000-6000’. It is also the mountains, so there is a fair amount of challenging technical terrain. Again, this is hard to simulate at home, but I would do what I can, just like any other race or challenge I decide to tackle.
To guide my training, I needed to strategically think about a race schedule that compliments this major goal of mine. I decided to make my first race of 2022 to be an early season Midwest classic race, the Zumbro Endurance Run, in early April. It sits in the Zumbro River Valley and has some elevation change. I opted for the 34 mile, and ended up having a great day and pulled off the win, but more importantly, it kept me focused through my Wisconsin winter training.
My next race took me to the mountains, with the Bighorn 50. It is a 50 mile event in the Bighorn Mountains that has a similar high point in elevation and some good technical mountain running to practice. It was also in June, which allowed me to have almost two months after the race to recover and get in some more solid training before heading to Europe. Bighorn was a solid effort that resulted in a 4th place finish overall, and a fun road trip with my family. I made a few small nutritional mistakes in the heat (it was above 90 by the end of the race), but it was great to be back at it with another “normal” race experience, after two years of not racing. I was pleased with my training and how I felt during and after the race.
Dr. Mike and Dr. Pat at the Zumbro Endurance
Run after taking 1st and 2nd in the 34 mile run.
Dr. Mike coming across the finish line holding his daughter Emmy at the Bighorn 50.
After Bighorn, a client of mine reached out about needing a pacer for 50 miles of her adventure at the High Lonesome 100 mile race. This race was only about 4 weeks out from Europe and would be a good attitude stimulus and time on my feet heading into the TDS. High Lonesome gets to or near 13,000’ feet several times and again has some nice gnarly mountain terrain to practice in the Collegiate Peaks in Colorado near Buena Vista. The trip to Colorado was a success as my client got to the finish line of an epic race, and I got to share in her experience. We ran together through the night and into the next day, which was great training for TDS because it had a midnight start.
On top of my planned out race schedule, I had good consistent training all year sitting at 50-65 miles per week of running most weeks of the year. I have been at higher mileage at times in the past, but when trying to balance family, work, and other life responsibilities while still staying healthy, this seems to be my sweet spot. I also made an effort to get in good strength training sessions with one harder lift each week and then a combination of smaller core and deep hip muscle strength throughout the rest of the week. I credit the lifting and simple little strength and mobility sessions for making a difference in not only how I feel week to week, but also in allowing me to train consistently all year and minimize injuries.
Sunrise near Monarch Pass in the Collegiate
Peaks in Colorado.
The start line at any of the UTMB races are part of what makes them so epic. There are 1000s of people lined up for this mountain adventure, and the town comes out to cheer runners as they start their journey. One of my favorite parts is the start line music they play. It makes you feel like you are heading into battle, and just gets your mind ready to roll! The beginning of this video gives a slight idea: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ijkra86Ec0g
After a successful race season in the states and a solid and healthy training cycle, I felt like I was ready at the start line for race day. However, race day did bring some additional factors that I was not used to. After two days adjusting to a new time zone and jet lag, the race also started at 12:00 am. This included getting on a bus in Chamonix, France at 9:30 pm and traveling to Couremayer, Italy and waiting until the race got started. With these extra factors, I did the best I could and took off with a positive mindset for a good race.
Waiting at the start line about 40 minutes
before the midnight start.
The first 6-7 hours of the race were amazing. I was finally out there running in the Alps in the night soaking up what was an amazing evening into morning. The sunrise over the mountains was epic, and as I rolled into Bourg St. Maurice at about mile 32, I was ready to take on the day, or so I thought. At the aid station, I took my time, refueled, had some breakfast and got ready to head out on what I knew was a long section of the race with minimal aid and a huge climb up 5000+ feet to one of the highest points and most technical sections of the whole course.
Not long after leaving the aid station, despite having refueled and regrouped something weird happened. I became incredibly fatigued. I could not keep my eyes open as I was climbing up the mountain. I felt at this time maybe I should just try to take a quick trail nap and see if that would wake me up. So I pulled out my jacket and bundled up as I laid on the side of a mountain for 5 minutes. I set an alarm and was startled awake, and immediately felt refreshed. Only problem was that it only lasted for a few minutes before I felt like I needed another nap. It is not typical for me to need to nap in races, but going into this epic adventure, I told myself that I wanted to race, but ultimately keep my ego out of things and just listen to my body early to make sure I set myself up for a strong finish. In listening to my body, I took a second nap, and went VERY slow up this massive climb. Once reaching the top, I had a short pity party before I told myself my mantra: just run your race and control what you can.
The next section was a gradual climb, but mostly level along the mountain top, and we were joined by a conga line of cows. As I was weaving around the cows, I started feeling really really nauseous. The next thing I know I am on the side of a trail next to a cow throwing up. Thankfully another kind runner stopped and called the medical team's phone number and we talked through things so they would be ready for me at their next medical station.
View of an open pasture at one of the high points of the race. These cows were walking right on the trail earlier.
Running to meet them consisted of a very very slow hike where any time my Heart Rate increased over 130 I was nauseous and eating made me vomit or dry heave. I met the first medical team at Passeur de Pralognan. This is a very technical section of the course with a gnarly descent. In 2021, at this spot on the course, someone fell and passed away in the race, unfortunately. So before going down that pass, the medical team wanted to make sure I would be safe. I was really dizzy at this point after throwing up my calories and essentially not being able to keep anything down for what had amounted to almost 5 hours. After resting there and getting the dizziness under control with some salt water, two volunteers walked with me down the most technical section of the trail to make sure I did not fall. I was thankful they were both there because I did not feel steady and actually did slip at one point, and one of them had to grab onto me to steady me.
Getting to the next aid station at Cormet de Roselend was a steep descent followed by a gradual gravel road descent. I tried running the road part and my nausea returned, but I got to the aid station and the next medical team was there and ready to reassess me. At this point, I had not eaten anything substantial that would stay down for 6-7 hours. I sat in the aid station for over an hour napping and trying to eat what I could. The doctor at this station allowed me time to try and feel better, but whenever I went to stand up my stomach wouldn’t feel good, and I would be a bit lightheaded. I told the doctor that I thought if I started walking I would be okay, but he said he could see in my eyes that something wasn’t right. He then told me that I wouldn’t be able to receive appropriate medical attention again for at least 20 km or until reaching the town of Beaufort. Listening to him the logical part of my brain knew he was right, but it was so hard in the moment to admit it. I asked for a few more minutes to decide. I called and talked to my wife, Allyson, and she said make the smart decision…. So that is what I did.
Where to go From Here
When races, or things in life don’t go as planned, you often learn new things. Sometimes with races, you learn different race strategies to try or mistakes to avoid in the future. Sometimes, you learn things and they help you grow as a person, but there is nothing you could have done differently in that situation. That seems to be where I am sitting after this adventure and as I look into the new year and new adventures, I take these three big takeaways with me:
You Can’t Define Yourself by a Single Day
It is a lot easier said than done, but having a positive attitude after a failed race attempt is important in helping you get ready for the next adventure. For this race, a lot of the pieces fell into the right place and I was excited to show what I had trained hard for. However, it was not my day and I can’t let that define me, my racing abilities, or my goals for the future. Instead, I will use this experience and race to make me a stronger runner and person.
Consistency is Key
While the race didn’t go as planned, I could not have had a much better training cycle. I stayed healthy, had success, and felt that many things went right in how I felt physically and mentally. This was because I put in the work consistently. You can’t go all in the beginning and then fall off the tracks or slack up until the end and hurry up and work. You have to be consistent with your routine as it will not only help things go more smoothly, but it will also help the longevity of your physical health for the future.
Never Stop Taking Risks
It absolutely stinks that my race did not go as planned, however, I do not regret my chance to toe the start line and chase my dreams. I will never achieve my goals or experience those bucket list items if I don’t take the risks and make it happen. As I look ahead to the future, I plan to continue to take the risks and do hard things instead of settling for the safe and known. Not taking the risk might be the bigger failure then not reaching a finish line on a single day.
A view of Chamonix Valley.
Dr. Mike will be talking about ultrarunning Tuesday, January 31st at the Pump House Regional Arts Center from 6:30p.m. to 8:00p.m. This event will be located on 119 King St. La Crosse, WI 54601. In our region, we have so many unsung adventure heroes. These are folks flying under the radar, doing great things in their outdoor adventure pursuits, but often never having a platform to share it. Click below to hear about Dr. Mike's adventure when participating in the Ultra Ultra Trail Series!
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