Jakob Bökman

UTMB 2017 – an event report

"Look who is coming"

"Look who is coming", the speaker says when we are ten minutes off to start and I wonder what Sidney Poitiers has to do with anything. But it turns out that the one coming is Killian Jornet reaping the benefits from being the great, great star showing up last of all runners. Not Sidney shaking up the dinner plans. I wonder what the rest of the elite runners think of just having been turned into extras by Killian and the officials, but they seem happy as does Killian when they all greet each other joyfully while Killian documents it with his cell phone.

Last year I had no second thoughts while hanging in the start area. This year it is just on the verge of being a little too much. The speakers are cheering, if not yelling, as if we were in a football stadium or at a cross fit work out session. I look up at the mountains and experience a sense a longing. The mountains are calling and I must go, in Muir's words. For the first time I get the feeling that UTMB is at a peak and that we will see a change over the coming years. It is questionable how much more the event can expand, and it is also a question of where the types (like myself) wanting to combine the mountain and ultra-endurance solitude with a sense of pulse and belonging will look next. This is truly an astonishing event, but also large enough as to be slightly preventive from creating tight kinships.

Are the people in Saint Gervais particularly happy?

Yes, most likely they are. They live in a pretty village by the foot of the Alps with access to their own, family friendly slopes separating them from the extremist hard cores further up the valley, and seeing them Friday evening giving their full support they come across as very positive and generous.

If you have managed to pace yourself in a disciplined manner the 20 kilometers to Saint Gervais (and you should have), you will most assuredly fail once you reach the end of the long flat stone stairs leading down to the village. You enter a veritable gauntlet taking you through the town. It is barricaded, letting the loud masses of villagers leaning over the fence slapping your hands, shouting you on. You will get carried away, you will run too fast propelled by the overwhelming enthusiasm from the crowd but you will just in some hundred meters reach the food station where you will stop for a few short minutes. It will do you good, because you wouldn't be able to go on in that pace.

Rammstein in Notre Dame

The traditional bonfire at Notre Dame de la Gorge is not lit, but there is a smaller fire uphill on the side of the track. Heating enough though is the spectacular, powerful and well sounding audio system someone has put there and from which I can enjoy Rammstein hammering out "Amerika" loud enough and hard enough to wonder if someone’s intent is to make a point, and if so what it is. But it really sounds terrific given the environment and the weather. It is a nice place. However, I have a hard time reconciling this brazen industry metal, the imaginable pot smoking at the camping (purely speculative on my side but the site conveys certain vibes that create these associations) and the religious activities of the abbey.

"Venga Jakob!”

Much later, getting out of La Fouly I have grabbed some sweet crackers I promise myself to eat while walking. I am tired. A young Spaniard, possibly a fellow competitor questions my walking stride and says "Venga" which forces me into a running gait.

Some hours later, getting out of Champex Lac I have chosen some salt crackers (the sweet did not do it for me) to eat while walking. I am tired again. By the lake an older Spaniard, definitely not a participant judging from his clothing and heavy posture, exclaims "Venga. Venga Jakob!" So I bend my leg at impact and rolls into a slow jog knowing that he is right. You shouldn't be walking the flat paved parts if you are anything of a runner.

I do not speak Spanish, but I am truly grateful for the support. I have come to understand that "Venga" means "Move it, you lazy shit".

August Strindberg

Strindberg summarized fall, winter and early spring in Hemsöborna in two rows. He wanted to focus on the two summers in the Stockholm archipelago which the whole story is focused on, even though there actually was a winter in between harboring the same characters. He stated something to the effect of the winter passing with darkness, cold and a Christmas party.

This brief description is accurate for a large part of my UTMB 2017, except I did not experience any Christmas party.

However, the last part of the race was particularly grim. Due to weather conditions the route was slightly altered. They decided to send us up and down the hill sides between Vallorcine and Chamonix in what seemed a bad joke and an unsolvable labyrinth. And for some it actually turned from strange to stranger. Somewhere on the way up to La Flegere someone ahead asks for the route. He claims to have followed the signs and twice be back on the same spot after circling the rock he is standing by waiting for guidance. He is making company, grunting from suffering in the steep uphill, but as far as I know still present in the real world and not lost in the Red Room at the Black Lodge.

Post truth, fake news and a reality check

After 32 hours I cross the finish line. The preparations have been good (except for tripping, getting an infected wound and running on antibiotics). But I missed a simple thing of small consequence. We stay half way up to Argentiere. When I reach the finishing line it is already, and still, night. Chamonix does not seem to have a taxi service and the buses stop their service during night time. Hiking some extra miles after circumnavigating the White Mountain is not what I had anticipated.  Another joke. But as soon as I accept the fact with equanimity a car stops to give me a lift. It is a woman from Paris with her daughter on the way to Vallorcine to meet her husband who soon will enter the last aid station.

Someone points out that I am in seventh place in my age category. My middle age crisis suddenly stops. Instead, it turns into a crisis of age. There is no middle anymore. For me to be in seventh place must mean I am old, so old that there is a reason my memories are in black and white.

If I were inclined to the post truth view of things I would state the fake news of me being seventh best in the world. After all, this is the race above all races. This is the race that draws participants from practically the whole globe. People spend years practicing and qualifying just to get in and let alone survive the challenge. Despite this, over 30 percent of this year’s contestants fail from making it all the way from start to finish. 857 runners quit somewhere along the route. What else could be said, the proof is there - I am in world top ten. As with all good fake news, hyperboles just make them more trustworthy.

If we instead return to reality, I end up in total rank 210. A goal I had but never dared to express was to be top ten percent. That would actually be quite cool. I was about to give up on it going into the second night, but now I made it with a slim margin. I do not complain. I am content.

(Another reality check is that there are heaps and heaps of good runners never entering or even considering to enter. The rank does not divulge much information of value since there is a parallel universe not present. The rank works for competing against yourself, though. If you have a good race you have probably gained positions as you go. If you start too fast there is a huge risk you will have a hard time keeping up, and it will only be worse and worse the further into the race you go.)

Mme Polleti

During Sunday the sun actually comes out. My wife sets off to trek the Auiguille Rouge. I fall asleep on a bench along the river. Then I go for a late lunch at the UCPA. I happen to sit next to Mme Polleti, the Race director of the whole event. She is involved in a seemingly engaged, or maybe it is just typical French, discussion with her colleague. When he leaves for replenishment I take the opportunity to thank her for the organization. She confirms that this week is busy, and means serious business not only for Chamonix, but for all the towns participating. La Fouly, she mentions as an example, is a small town but in this context it is put on the world map. They are seven full time employees year round. It does not seem abundant. Despite the 2000 volunteers I guess they must purchase a lot of external support given the magnitude of planning, information need and logistics an operation like this must entail. There are 8000 runners in total across the week. With accompanying persons and families this makes for one of the busiest weeks of the year in Chamonix.

So my guess is that the forces will continue to have UTMB grow as long as there is a foundation for it. The more people who get the opportunity to participate in one of the races, the better for just the same people. At the same time "the foundation" has a strong resemblance to "the market". For all its merits, capitalism also has its limitations. I do not know how often I heard the phrase "before money got into it" as an explanation for how sports used to be funnier, for how culture used to have meaning or for how nature used to be pristine. And once money gets into it there is hardly no stopping it. Money feed on money in a loop almost as endless as this year’s route to La Flegere.

Epilogue: Groupies

In the evening we decide for Argentiere for its quietness. I run into the guide we had in Lyngen a couple of years ago. He is very firm in advising me on getting some real food. I am very cautious not to repeat last year's mistakes that caused the strong sickness.

We enjoy a fantastically well-made dinner at Le Bistro du Dahu. That is, my wife does and I eat a salad and pick the leftovers from her plate. It is really honest food made with purpose and simplicity. A group of senior American ladies (and one Dane) with a guide takes the table next to us. They are highly representable and from overhearing I understand art to be one of their interests. All of a sudden someone realizes I have run the UTMB and they get overwhelmed with enthusiasm and awe displayed in applauses, questions and conversation. My instinct tells me they must be mocking me, but I get hold of myself. I am probably just exotic and an interesting new topic. It turns out that I must have passed them on the way when they trekked their way from Courmayeur. Within minutes, without me even revealing my name, their smartphones have given me away. "You are Jakob" and then they have my complete whereabouts the last two days. So we talk briefly some more before we have to leave and one of the ladies tells my wife that "we will all be Jakob's groupies". Yes, maybe ageing does not need to be all bad. To be a groupie, to have some groupies, or at least to still have some sense of humor.


Jakob B


2017-09-05 13:52.

Kommentarer till blogginlägget

Well done, and fantastic reading!