Coming into UTMB 2022 I felt healthy, happy and ready to run my first 100 mile race. It’s taken me many years to get here – to the start line of a 100 mile mountain race. Years of injury and re-injury have prevented me from standing on a start line, ready to tackle the distance of a 100 mile race. The closest I came was my TDS race in 2019, a 145km race around the Savoie region of the alps, climbing nearly 10,000 meters. Although 94 miles might seem close enough to call it a 100 mile race, the beastly 108 miles of UTMB is a different challenge, entirely.
The hype surrounding UTMB has grown exponentially over the years. This event, and all its races throughout the week, bring the most competitive and deep fields of any race on the calendar. The small town of Chamonix becomes a bustling metropolitan of athletes, brands and community events. I usually see more people that I know during UTMB week than when I do when I’m home in Boulder, CO.
But this kind of energy surrounding a race requires an athlete to exhibit restraint. It’s easy to overcommit and do too much before the start of the race, leaving you mentally and physically exhausted before the start of the race. I’ve been coming to UTMB week since 2018, so I’ve seen the scene and know what to do guard my mental and physical energy before a race, but there’s still nothing that compares to the feeling when the gun goes off at 6pm in the center of Chamonix, France.
This race starts out FAST! The first 20 miles has about 5000 feet of gain and descent, all in non-technical terrain. I accepted this fact and went with it, I had practiced plenty of fast start runs. But as soon as I hit the first descent, heading into St. Gervais, I knew something was wrong. My stomach started to protest. Little did I know that this was the beginning of 17 hours of battling a bad stomach.
It wasn’t too bad at first, I was still able to climb well and eat gels, but as the night fell and I entered into the mountainous portion of the race, climbing up over Col du Bonhomme things started to lock up. Every time I tried to eat something, my stomach would protest within minutes, forcing me to take bathroom breaks on the side of the trail. I tried to problem solve, take smaller, more frequent bites of nutrition – nope, just a more pitstops. I tried to alternate between real food (potatoes and rice I had in my pack) or the liquid calories in my bottles. All resulted in painful cramps in my stomach and needed to pop-a-squat on the side of the trail. Nothing seemed to be working. My concern and panic was rising for the result of my race. Along with my emotions. As my concern grew, thoughts of worry and doubt began to grow within my head. As I crested Col de la Seigne, running into Italy, I was doing everything in my power to make it into Courmayeur to see my crew. At this point, my quads and hamstrings were cramping due to lack of nutrition, and my pace was slowing – especially on the descents. As more and more people (and women passed me) the tears began swelling. ‘Just make it to Courmayeur’ I kept telling myself. The rest of the race seemed impossible at this point.
As I entered the aid station at Courmayeur, I was an hour behind schedule, and I hadn’t been able to eat more than 500 calories for the last 11.5 hours. I was empty, in one of the lowest spots mentally I had ever been, and ready to abandon my race.
After speaking with my coach and sitting in the aid station for 1 hour slowly eating more and more food, I decided to keep going. My crew, Elise Mordos, told me to at least make it to La Fouly before throwing in the towel. My stomach would come back, to just give it time. As we prepared my pack and I got up to head out the door, my mind could not be more conflicted. Some of the toughest kms of the race remained, and my stomach was still on the fritz, I had no idea if I could finish this race. I had no idea if I even wanted to.
As I started up the climb from Courmayeur, my face was still wet with tears. I was now back in 28th position. My top 10 goal was out of reach. Why should I continue. I didn’t train this hard to be so far back from my potential, I saw every reason to quit. To be honest, a race like UTMB is set up for elites to quit. The pressure to perform is real, and when there are low moments, or when athletes aren’t living up to their expected place or anticipated time, it’s a heavy mental burden to overcome. I was deep in this mental hole from Les Contamines (31km) to La Fouly (113km), as I was battling a sour stomach. About 17 hours of mental misery suffer-land.
I saw every reason to quit, but something inside me wouldn’t let me. As I made my way up to Champex Lac, I had a thought: ‘You don’t need to prove to anyone how tough you are Hillary, you decide what this race means to you. You decide if you want to finish it.’ As I heard my words in my head, I knew what I had to do. I knew I was going to finish UTMB, no matter my place, my time, or how it looked on paper. I wanted my first 100 mile finish.
Although my stomach never really settled, my bathroom breaks stopped, and it did improve. I was able to eat a combination of simple real food (boiled potatoes) and gels for the remaining 50km of the race. In fact, I finished the race in 14th place, out sprinting a woman in town (I ran a 6:32 min mile to finish my race) and having a really strong last part of the race. But, in all honesty, my finishing place isn’t what kept me going, it was my shift in perspective – and reclaiming my narrative of why I was running UTMB.
Of course, I couldn’t have done it without my amazing crew (Elise Mordos, Anna McNestry, my mom) encouraging me along the way, and my Brooks team all along the course, or the words of my coach, and my boyfriend Bastien. Team support is absolutely necessary during these long race, but they don’t matter one bit unless I know why I’m running, and I know why I wanted to keep battling my way to the finish line. For the first 17 hours of my UTMB I didn’t know why I was running – pinned between outward expectation and judgment on a poor performance, stomach issues, and the real reason why I wanted to finish UTMB: because 5 years ago, I had no idea if I would ever run another step, let alone finish one of the toughest 100 mile races in the world.
That’s what got me to the finish line of UTMB, smiling, happy and so proud of my journey to get to the start line with the courage to try, and, perhaps fail. My finish has left me with the hunger to dive even deeper on the next one, to discover what I’m truly capable of.