Last month, thousands gathered in Chamonix, France for the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc - the premier ultrarunning event in Europe. This week, our Sr. Performance Product Manager Nichol Seeley is sharing her first-person perspective on the race as part of Hal Koerner's crew in the conclusion of a two part series.
The following morning we arrived at Courmayeur, Italy 78 km into the race. Hours of sleeplessness were rewarded by an absolutely breathtaking view of the valley and the mountains. The aid station was inside a sports center where we laid out Hal’s gear – change of clothing, hydration bag reserve refill, GU’s and Snickers. All were neatly merchandised along a bench, making it easy to grab and drew a lot of attention. We tried to eliminate the need for decision making – with all the adrenaline sometimes you aren’t certain what you need or want until you see it. Hal came in strong, still within contention, but in need of some shorts. None were in his kit! Each crew member strategized how to get him a pair. After he hydrated and ate a little he was off again.
A quick call to The North Face store to set aside a Better Than Naked short at the front desk. Along the two hour drive back into France the support crew car discussed our tactics. Two people to the store, one purchasing the product while the other roamed the rack for any other short we knew Hal was familiar with, another to the pharmacy for a few things he requested, yet another crew to a hotel for towels that would become a changing room and the last member of the car at the wheel double parked in the middle of Chamonix.
We arrived at Chamonix and as soon as the car slowed, my teammate and I jumped out of the car and ran to The North Face store. Breathless she purchased product while I ran up the stairs, and found a Cardiac Split Short. Back down the stairs, credit card swiped, ran through the streets, jumped into the car and we were off again to La Fouly.
At this point in the race runners were the most isolated from their support crew. There were several aid stations between Courmayeur and La Fouly – a distance of about 32 km, but at several of these locations there wasn’t any food. This is something a lot of runners hadn’t planned on. At La Fouly we saw runner after runner bonking with lack of food, or mental frustration when support crews could not be located. With broken spirits and energy depleted bodies some runners had to pull out of the race. Hal, although without energy from lack of food, didn’t arrive with a broken spirit. An SMS from him indicated he was taking much longer than expected. He was coming down the ski slope, but he would be fine if we wanted to move on. What kind of a crew leaves his athlete behind? When Hal arrived he was a little delirious from lack of food. He expended a lot of energy running himself into contention, but without the fuel needed to continue at race pace was forced to concede to his body’s demands of a much slower pace.
At the aid station, we handed off new shorts. He sat for a while not knowing what he needed. After he was composed he changed into shorts and we gathered a small sampling of food to showcase his options. He drank some soup, ate some oranges, and talked about the course. I wondered if he wanted to go on. At this point in the race at 110 km we heard several runners, including top contenders had pulled out of the race. After about 30 minutes he continued on. We lost half our crew post La Fouly, who had prior engagements. On the drive to the next aid station our delirious state was coming to fruition.
At this point, we had been up over 24 hours without having adjusted to the time zone and had little food. We laughed like little kids and were easily amused with one liners. We laughed, we cried and somehow managed to do both. A flood of emotions heightened by our delirium and adrenaline flow from following our runner. Just after the sunset, we saw Hal 14 km later at Champex-Lac. Runners torches were visible as some walked and others slowly jogged up the hillside.
A few of us walked through the course going in the opposite direction, wondering if he wanted some company. We, or perhaps just I, was a little worried in that his splits had slowed. I wondered if he recovered enough from the lack of food. Although the isolation of a 100 mile run can be an emotional personal experience, sometimes it is a nice break from your thoughts to converse with others. He seemed to enjoy our company.
We neared the entrance of Champex-Lac aid station. This was the first time Hal clearly wanted something. “I saw someone with fries.” I scanned the selection of food and couldn’t find any, but looked toward the food offering for crowd members and fans. Frites! Quickly grabbed Euros and tried to wait patiently in line for my turn to order. There were only a few in front of me, but seemed to take forever. “Frites” I ordered, while trying to motion with my hands for the biggest portion possible for our runner. My French vocabulary is unfortunately very limited. I raced back over to the other side of the tent to hand off the fries. Hal started to eat and graciously offered some to the crew. “I can’t eat all these, help me eat them.” He was more lucid than at La Fouly despite being 21 hours into the race, but I still wondered if he wanted to go on. We talked and joked with him, “I’ve got nothing else to do, so might as well run.”
As soon as he was off, his crew members descended like vultures onto the remaining fries. The six of us drove off in search of food. It was nearly 10 pm and all restaurants were closed. We were getting desparate, and politely knocked on an Italian restaurant, begging for food. They ended up serving us, six people who ordered eight entrees. They were very confused but didn’t know how long it had been since we last slept or eaten – close to 12 hours for food and 37 hours of little to no sleep. We all welcomed the food, but our delirious state would continue.
After dinner we drove onward to Trient. This aid station was 140 km into the race. We learned not to expect Hal for a few more hours. As a result, we dropped off half the team in Chamonix to sleep. The Footwear Product Director and I returned to Trient to meet up with Hal. We walked up the road to see if we could spot his torch and swagger through the darkness. At least the rain had stopped in the middle of Friday night, but the clear skies made it colder for athletes and fans throughout Saturday evening. The descent of this summit was quite steep. We could see the torch at the initial switchback and didn’t see the light again until the runners were nearly upon us.
Finally we spotted Hal’s familiar trot. At this point, he was cold and tired. More athletes had dropped out of the race, but Hal seemed determined to finish. His resolve and jovial spirit was impressive. We handed off an insulated jacket, extra pair of socks to act as glove liners, more GU and Snickers to get him through the rest of the late evening and early morning. We still had about 30 km to the finish line and several thousand feet of climbing and descending. Yet He went on. The Vallorcine aid station would be the last stop in the tour for his crew.
JP, our footwear director, and I slept in the van for a few hours, and awoke to see our breath in the freezing van. We set up supplies in the aid station and walked up the hillside to meet Hal. He told us stories of falling asleep along the trail and slapping himself to stay awake. It was now 9 a.m., 34 hours and 149 km into the race and 18 km to go – more than 11 miles. Still he went on, but at least this time he had a friend in tow. A fellow racer he knew would finish the rest of the arduous journey with him. The crew team was relieved. We drove into Chamonix to relax for a few hours and meet Hal at the finish line.
Hal, a two time winner of Western States, had nothing to prove to the running community. He finished the Ultra Tour De Mont Blanc solely because he signed up for the race and wanted to complete the journey. Along the trail he had hoped to meet up with his wife to celebrate their one year anniversary. She and his entourage was able to meet up with him with less than a mile to go, swaggering into the finish line nearly 39 hours later. His head held high, as it should. Not many people would have persevered on, but he did. A competitive ultra runner, sidelined by lack of food, no longer concerned with split times, focused and determined to finish the Ultra-Tour du Mont Blanc, 4 marathons with a total elevation gain and loss that equals a Mt. Everest climb did just that.
-- Nichol Seeley, A Humbled Sr Product Manager for Running Apparel at The North Face