UTMR Day 2: Persistence

Read about UTMR Day 1 here.

I couldn't understand how the other racers could eat so much at 4:30 am. I nibbled at a croissant with jam, a little cheese and figs and a cup of coffee. Not enough calories for the big day ahead, I knew, but I was starting to feel queasy and wanted the little I had eaten to stay in my stomach!

It was dark at the 6 am start, but at least it wasn't as cold as the previous day. The volunteers around the start told us that there had been a thunderstorm the night before, and snow over Passo di Salati, our first big pass of the day. The ultra race (170 km, insane stuff!) had actually been paused during the night to keep the runners safe.

Our ranks had swelled, as the three day stage race was now running parallel to the four day stage race. Nearly 200 runners took off from pre-dawn Gressoney, and headlamps soon snaked up the steep grassy slope ahead of me. Gondola chairs loomed overhead, reminding us of the irony that we were climbing a slope that could be ascended mechanically.

Runners leave Gressoney on Day 2 of UTMR. Photo: Zoe
I had started in the middle of the field, and the pace was leisurely. The trail was very narrow for the first half of the climb, making it difficult to pass. I spent the time making up for my meager breakfast, gnawing on Snickers and nuts as I walked uphill. I passed several 170 km ultra runners, who looked like zombies compared to us carefree stage racers.

After about an hour of hiking, it was light enough to turn off my headlamps. I chatted with a Swede, Ebba, then Jamie, a British man whose wife was riding in Zoe's rental car around the mountain due to an injury, and finally Charlie, a younger woman who was braving her way through the four day stage race. But my legs had awoken, and I gradually pulled away from my new-found friends. We were at nearly 3000 meters again, and my lungs seemed to have adjusted to the altitude.

In the fog, near the summit of Passo dei Salati.
It was cold and foggy on top of Passo dei Salati, where a warm hut greeted us. I was grateful to be inside, but wary of staying too long. A volunteer gave me some hot tea that I dumped into one of my water bottles. Then I pulled on my rain jacket and high-tailed it out of there.

I positively flew down the 11 km descent to Alagna, passing runner after runner. Below the thick fog capping the mountains, muted views of steep green mountain slopes appeared. My quads were starting to turn to jelly as I bombed the final section of steep trail through the forest.

Steep hillsides appear out of the fog on the descent to Alagna.

I stopped briefly at the big aid station in Alagna, filling my bottles and reacquainting myself with profile for the rest of the course for the day. Another big climb, another big descent. The path out of Alagna weaved through old wooden Waliser houses before climbing gently along a river. 

A guy in flowery board shorts whom I had leapfrogged with was ahead of me, and Tina, a Swede whom I had passed on the descent, was behind but quickly caught and passed me. I let them both go, jogging slowly as I munched on a tuna sandwich and tried to gather strength for the gargantuan ascent to Col de Turlo.

Moving along the river, I was suddenly struck with a paranoid thought that wouldn't shake loose. The previous day, Zoe had swerved to avoid a bus on a hairpin turn when driving from the start to the finish of the stage and scraped a hub cap. What if she were in an accident today? What if she was in the hospital right now? It would all be my fault, since this was all my stupid idea! I almost began hyperventilating, and decided to call Audun. He calmly reminded me to focus on the race, and reassured me that Zoe was fine. 

Once I had collected the scattered pieces of my irrational brain and refocused on moving uphill, the calories I had eaten kicked in and I started moving at a fair clip. I was further motivated by the appearance of two more racers chasing me, and I caught Mr. Flowery Board Shorts. My chasers soon caught me however, and I chatted briefly with Jodie as she powered past.

The trail up to Col de Turlo was built like a narrow road of rocks, and graded nicely. Still, it was a long, lonely slog. Vanessa Carlton's "A Thousand Miles" played on repeat in my head. If I could fall into the sky, do you think time would pass me by? 

Finally, the last rocky section up to the Col appeared. I passed a woman who was stopping frequently for breaks. She said she was "just tired". Aren't we all, I thought. I wouldn't stop. Persistent, constant forward motion was the name of this game.

The top of Col de Turlo appears.

Descending off of Col de Turlo was pure joy. The trails were nicely graded and well-built with solid footing. I soon passed all of the runners who had overtaken me on the ascent, and was virtually alone on the mountain.

It was a monster descent, and I began to watch the numbers tick down on my altimeter, wondering when I would get to the final aid station at Quarazza and the last easy 5K to the finish.

The descent towards Quarazza.
The route flattened and turned into a technical trail following the river through a valley. According to the distance on my watch, the Quarazza aid station should be anytime now. Almost there!

The aid station came nearly 2 km after my watch said it should, and I passed another woman, Eilidh, just before it. Feeling competitive now, I only stopped at the aid station to note the profile for the final 5 km - mostly downhill but slightly uphill for the last kilometer! - before leaving.

I ran steadily on the dirt road leading to Macugnaga, ready to get this long day over with. The final, uphill kilometer was pure torture, but I passed a couple more guys running the 170 ultra and reminded myself that I couldn't complain. I was, after all, doing the easy race.

Forcing a smile on the final stretch to the finish of stage 2 in Macugnaga. Photo: Zoe
Finally - finally! - I crossed the finish line, feeling worked. Zoe met me with an Orangina and shepherded me to our hotel where I stretched, ate and prepared for doing it all over again tomorrow. Tomorrow was the last day, and there would be nothing to save energy for. I planned to race hard, to summon everything I had left and find out what I was made of.

Recovering like a pro.

Stats Day 2:

Distance: 46.5 km
Elevation gain: 3392 m
Time: 8h25min
Rank: 5/22 female, 15/62 overall


  1. Nice description, makes the run sound almost do-able, even for us old codgers!


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