I collapsed on the table inside the white aid station tent at La Fouly, about 70 miles into my attempted circumnavigation of Mont Blanc. I was wrecked. My legs were thrashed from the steeper-than-expected descent off the Col Ferret, and my mind was beginning to slip away as I played the dangerous game of thinking about how long I was still going be out there. I ate some crackers and salami as I pulled out my phone to shoot a preemptive text to my wife, trying to stay ahead of the thoughts of quitting just beginning to bubble up in my head. I tried to tune out the thundering cacophony of a very excited Frenchwoman announcing race details over the PA system inside of the tent.
Me: Hey Sweetie, I’m in La Fouly. Completely wrecked. Need to get some food and drink. Whatever I say, DO NOT pick me up at Champex. I don’t want to see you until Trient.
Wife: You’ve got this, you’re crushing it. Get some food and get back out there. Have you heard about Courtney?!?
Me: No, what’s going on at the front of the race?
Wife: Courtney is FLYING INTO CHAMONIX RIGHT NOW, in 6th or 7th place overall, about to set a course record. She’s crushing all the other women AND the men.
My spirits were immediately lifted and my legs miraculously felt fresh again. I realized that as my wife was relaying the results over text, this is also what the French announcer was so fired up about – she was gleefully narrating Courtney’s descent into Chamonix and giddy over the fact that she would be the seventh overall finisher of the race. I canceled the pity party for myself, chugged two cups of coke, slung on my vest and hit the trail, charging as fast as I could down to Champex-Lac. When the pain in my legs became unbearable I thought “Imagine how bad Courtney felt right here”, and when I had a solo moment on the trail I would spontaneously shout at the top of my lungs “COURTNEY, LET’S F#$KING GO!!!!!!”
Like most runners in the event, my road to UTMB and to that puddle of despair at La Fouly had been a long one. I got my first glimpse of Mont Blanc in 2011 when my wife and I thru-hiked the GR-5 trail from lac Léman to Nice with our almost two year old son on our back. The week leading into Chamonix had been rainy and cold, and we were woefully unprepared for rain, expecting the summer weather we were used to in the California Sierra. We gratefully descended into the Chamonix Valley from Le Brévent for a few days of R&R – catching up with my wife’s French family that were in Le Buet, and buying full-priced rain gear for the squad in the shops of Cham. I had a new respect for this mythical mountain of Mont-Blanc, and this was my first experience witnessing its total command of weather and environmental patterns of the surrounding area. In fact, as we left the valley and headed south across Col du Bonhomme and into the Vanoise, we were hit with a weeklong snowstorm and freezing temperatures, in July. Yes, these mountains were different than our comparatively gentle Sierra.
I ran my first trail race in 2014, the China Camp Half Marathon, and I was instantly hooked. I remember watching the Timothy “Mirage” Olson / North Face short video “The Road to UTMB” and thinking, after barely finishing 13 miles, that it was absolutely insane to think that any human could run for that far and that long, through mountains that big. And then, as our family returned to spend the summer every other year in the Chamonix Valley, we became more and more interwoven into the area’s culture, topography, and life. The boys got bigger and started spending more time at camp with the Guides de Chamonix, which gave me and my wife Maureen more time to run and explore the local trails. As our fitness and range gradually increased year after year, and our runs became more distant and more remote, we were literally getting closer to the beacon of light that is Mont Blanc. The mountain was calling me like an inexplicable force, and like a spiritual pilgrim I didn’t ask many questions about why – instead, I started asking questions about how.
If a mountaineer’s highest act of devotion is to summit a peak, then a trail runner’s analogous pursuit is to run around that peak in a single push. I started to dream about making it around the entire mountain, and I knew that it would require years of focus along with physical and mental preparation. I ran whenever I could and raced occasionally, spending as much time in the mountains as I could manage. I began entering the UTMB lottery in 2018 only to get rejected, and then In 2019 I finished my first hundred mile race, Ultra-Trail Lake Tahoe, as it was one of the few 6 point races available in the US using UTMB’s new point system. During the COVID craziness of 2020 I was selected for the 2021 running of the race, a year where relatively few Americans were on the roster and it seemed crazy to venture all the way to France for a long distance run.
Shortly after my acceptance into UTMB, my wife was selected in the prestigious Tor des Géants lottery for the 330km run in Italy in mid-September. To be honest, I didn’t even realize she had put her name in the hat for this event. But the loss of our good friend and Tor veteran Lucas (and more importantly his voice saying “Just do it!”) had been ringing loudly in her head, and she accepted her entry into one of the most difficult trail races in the world. Just like that our summer fate was sealed – we scrapped previous plans to head back to the Sierra to continue our PCT thru-hike and instead booked cheap and refundable tickets on Air France to head back to the Alps for a summer of fun, exploration, and training in the mountains that we loved so much.
On previous trips we stayed slightly down valley from Chamonix, in the Les Bossons or Les Houches area. This year we were in search of something a bit quieter and away from the madness of Cham. We lucked into a quaint and cozy chalet in the hanging glacial valley of Trient, Switzerland, that had received glowing reviews on AirBNB, especially from trail runners there to train for events. A quick search on Strava confirmed that the trail access was unparalleled – we knew that with both adults juggling big training blocks, the ability to run big loops straight from our door would be clutch. And so, at the end of June, we moved our rock-solid quarantine squad of four from Berkeley, California, to Trient, Switzerland, for the summer.
We often joked about how we never fully came off the John Muir Trail at the end of Summer 2020, and our family slipped into rural mountain life with an incredible sense of comfort and grace. The boys spent the initial rainy days building endless forts in the forest before learning how to forage for Chanterelle mushrooms (and bring home enough to cook for dinner). We enjoyed the quiet and serene valley – the nights were utterly silent and we never thought once about locking our front door. It felt like a world away from the hectic urban life of the Bay Area, and we dreamed about a way to experience this peace and tranquility on a more permanent basis. When we weren’t cooking or beating the boys at card and board games, we were running, keeping up with our training plans and exploring the endless trailheads that spurred out of Trient. I was beyond excited that the local climb that started 100 meters from our Chalet was the steep ascent up to Tseppes, the penultimate climb of the UTMB course and one known to crack runners deep into the second night. My goal was to repeat this climb as much as I could so that when I had to ascend it on my final trip into Chamonix I could do it on auto-pilot.
Our summer unfolded pretty much as planned, and we stacked vert on the local trails while frolicking in the mountains, rivers, and lakes with our boys every chance we got. I had a blast at a local tune-up race called the Trail du Tour des Fiz in Passy at the end of July, and my training volume peaked during an epic 5 day fast-packing traverse of the Alta Via 1 in the Northern Aosta Valley with Maureen (write-up to come!) We wanted to scout the Tor course she would be seeing in September (spoiler alert: it’s steeper than UTMB!) and it seemed like a great opportunity to get one more burst of weighted volume on my legs that would hopefully prepare me for the 10,000 meters of elevation gain and loss in a single push.
With the final training block complete, I had imagined a smooth, relaxing taper until race day, and certainly did not predict the emotional rollercoaster that I would start riding instead. My mind began to grapple with two challenging realties at the same time as the summer wound to an end; I would soon be returning home to a country and a job in a bit of a crisis, but first I had to run in the biggest race of my life around Mont Blanc in a single push. In the week leading up to the race I admit that this stress got the best of me. I struggled with the ability to both simultaneously prepare for a massive, culminating event, while trying to remain calm and remove attachment to a specific outcome. I was a mess, even tweaking my back on a routine, casual training shakeout run the Monday of race week. I spent the following Tuesday letting everything go – my chances at success, my mental edge, and then finally my attachment to an outcome of my long journey thus far. Even I had fallen victim to the common hubris of humans, thinking that I could guarantee success with merely diligent work and preparation. As I struggled to regain my mental strength, I also began to acknowledge my fear of failure, all while hoping that my back regained its mobility without pain by the 5:00 PM start on Friday. At times I wished I was just heading to a local 50k in the Marin Headlands and not the World Summit of Trail Running in Chamonix – and yet I knew that I was exactly where I was supposed to be.
And then, just like that, the wait was over and Race Day was finally there. I slept in a bit (the joy of an evening start!) and woke up to head out on a mile shakeout from the chalet, really wanting to test my back and see if I was good to go. It certainly didn’t feel 100%, but it felt the best it had all week, and most importantly my gait felt loose and natural, even if there was a little bit of pain. It was what it was – this was what my body was giving me for the start, and I had to make it work. I knew the rest of my body and mind were 100% ready to go, and I wasn’t going to run a lap around this thing with my back anyway.
We headed into town and I joined the other anxious runners in a large grassy staging area in full sun as we waited to be escorted to the start line, staring up at the massif right in front of us. The cold weather kit was activated at the last minute as the predictions were calling for a chilly night up high, and the weather looked absolutely perfect for a few days of running through the mountains. We shortly assembled in front of the church and I met up with my friend Scott, who had flown in that week with this family and was ready to crush as well. And then, as the anticipation grew and the slackliner walked gingerly back and forth above the crowd, I was hit with a surge of emotions that brought tears to my eyes. After seven years of dreaming, seven years of waiting, working, and training to start this race – I was standing there at the start line of the UTMB. I was about to try to run around Mont Blanc.
The gun finally went off and the runners poured through the gates and into the streets of Cham. I had heard stories about the crowds during this race, but I’m here to tell you that a verbal description cannot do it justice. This is like the Rose Parade or the Tour de France, except that you are running in the middle with crowds absolutely going nuts for you all around. Cheering, yelling, stoked to see YOU running through the streets, stoked to see YOU finally fulfilling your life dream with them as a witness. I was so euphoric I simply ran through the crowds with both of my arms up in the air, soaking up the human energy that I had been missing so much throughout the pandemic, that suddenly felt so clean and ubiquitous in the fresh mountain air below Mont Blanc. There was no social distancing here, and it was all right. The crowd propelled us all the way out of town to Les Houches, and the cheers of “Allez Mat, Allez Bravo” kept an ear-to-ear grin on my face for the first few hours.
The first climb up to Col de Voza was familiar to me, as we stayed in a family friend’s chalet at the base of this climb during the Summer of 2019. Our local training loop would ascend the steep ski slope road up to Le Prarion and then come back down again to the chalet. Additionally, in August of that year my wife Maureen and I fast-packed the entire UTMB course in five days. It felt great to know the entire trail, and the fact that I could still visualize most of the sections really helped my belief that I could make it around this loop. I took my time on the first climb, still soaking in the crazy cheering and enthusiasm from the walls of spectators, and then began the huge descent into St. Gervais. Despite this being the first downhill of the course, it’s a full 1000 meters of descending and one of the longest on the whole route. Everyone that I asked for advice on this race told me one of two things; a) Don’t go too fast into Courmayeur and b) Don’t waste your legs on the descent to St. Gervais. I decided to be prudent and heed this advice, and took my time heading into town, allowing myself to be passed by others that were recklessly descending and trying to make up time. We had a lot of kilometers to go and I was in no rush.
We finally hit the bustling town of St. Gervais and it was a full on street party through the entire town. St. Gervais was LIT, y’all. The streets were packed, every single bar and restaurant was full with spectators pouring out of the doors and windows, cranking out an energy that was electric. I slowed down to a walk through the streets simply to soak it all in – smiling, turning around, living this magic that is UTMB. The organization gets a bad rap in many of my American trail running circles, and maybe deservedly so, but the thing that is missed on people that have not been over there before is how much of a local community event this is as well. The army of volunteers and spectators is genuinely fired up to be a part of this, and these towns and villages use the race week as an excuse to get outside of their homes and form community over eating, drinking, and cheering in the way that only Europeans can do. It was incredibly uplifting to see the life and love in these villages, especially in the middle of a pandemic, and it reminded me that yes, we need to be safe and smart, and yes, some things just have to go on – like UTMB.
I gathered up my night kit and got ready for the first slog through darkness. The route would take us across to Les Contamines and then we would begin one of the most sustained climbs on the entire course, the ascent up to Le Col du Bonhomme. I had told myself earlier that I had carried a two-year old in a backpack up this climb before, so surely I could do it with fresh legs on night one of UTMB. I settled into a groove of climbing, repeating one of the mantras given to me by my coach Bob Shebest (“You’re practically a French mountain goat by now!”), passing people here and there but largely content with staying in the singletrack conga line as it snaked its way up to the Col. I had never been in a race this big before, with this many people, and there was a sneaky efficiency in being stacked together as you climbed through the night. There wasn’t much you could do really, you just had to keep pace and climb with everybody else, and we silently wound our way up the incline while occasionally looking back to see the river of headlights below or the moon and stars above.
The night was crisp and clear and the time was just beginning to melt away (always a welcome event for me in a long ultra) as I descended into Le Chapieux, the southern corner of the course. I made a quick stop at the aid station and grabbed some hot soup which tasted amazing before taking off and hopping back on the climbing train that was heading up to the Col de la Seigne. I enjoy running at night, and even prefer it at some times to slogging along in the day, because your world turns into tunnel vision and you have no external distractions to lead your mind astray. The flip-side of this is that you also have no visual marker of your progress, and so the climb up to Co de la Seigne at times felt like it would never end. Every time I thought I saw the col on the dark horizon I would inexplicably see headlights above what I had thought to be the high point, and I would realize that we actually had much more climbing to go.
We finally crossed the top and headed into Italy, and it got cold as we headed up to Les Pyramides Calcaires. At this point I knew I was pretty much on-track for a morning stop in Courmayeur, where I would get to see Mo and the boys at my first crew stop. After Lac Combal we climbed up to the col below Mont Favre, and the sun began to crest over the mountains to the east and light up the sheer, glacial cliffs of the range – slowly at first, and then illuminating the massive granite walls in a rainbow of hues. One by one runners began to stop and pull over to the side of the trail, mouths agape, breaking the golden rule to “always keep moving” as they were mesmerized by the rising sun. It was the only time during the journey that I saw runners collectively stop together – and yet at the top of the Col de Mount Favre, perched high above Courmayeur, we paused our long march and lined up to stare speechlessly at Monte Bianco. It was a vivid reminder that despite not sharing much communication as we had silently traveled throughout the night, we were all in this together, each on our own personal journey around Mont Blanc.
The descent into Courmayeur is another dangerous part of the course, with the final two miles being ridiculously steep and capable of shredding even the strongest of quads after 50 miles. I again took it easy, resisting the excitement to speed into the life base so that I could see my family. We had planned two crew stops along the way – Mile 50 in Courmayeur, and mile 85 in Trient, as I was trying to strike a balance between emotional motivation and also getting around the loop. I was beyond ecstatic to see the crew in Courmayeur, and they lifted my spirits as only your most beloved can do. Without my loving family sharing this dream of mine, there’s no way that I could have made it happen. We took care of business and I tried to avert my gaze from the other runners in the large gymnasium, many of them in various states of disarray, looking pretty bad and like they weren’t going anywhere soon. I changed socks, got some noodle soup, refilled my gel stash in my vest, and took the first of my “five minute naps” where I laid my head down on the table, closed my eyes, and gave my mind a break from the race. I don’t think that I actually fell asleep but I did feel refreshed as Mo jostled me alert again, and I gave them kisses before heading back out on the trail and up the steep climb to Bertone.
I knew the next section of this trail very well, as Mo and I had just come the opposite direction on it, into Courmayeur, at the end of our AV1 traverse. After the initial steep climb to Bertone the trail flattens out for many miles as it runs along the balcon toward Rifugio Bonatti and then up to the Grand Col Ferret. Unfortunately, the flat section was very difficult for me to run on tired legs. I visualized that Maureen was running behind me as a pacer, and she would tell me when I had to run and when I could walk a bit. In the game in my head I had to listen to her, so when she said run, I did it. Thankfully she let up on the climbs, but my virtual pacer wife kept me moving along to Bonatti and then down to the bottom off the balcon. I had heard rumors on the internet that if you doubled your time to Bonatti you would get your finishing time in Cham – I came through the refuge at 17:45 hours, which would make my finishing time around 35:30. Okay, that was enough of that… no need to get ahead of myself right now. There was still a very long way to go.
I had also been reading a lot of hype about the climb up to Grand Col Ferrett, with Strava even recently highlighting a story about how it had a pension for crushing runners late in the race. Steep climbing was feeling the best out of all of my skills right then, probably from a summer of stacking vert in those very same mountains, and so I admit I let it loose a bit on the climb up to the top. I decided to push my legs a bit and see how many people I could reel in, both to ensure that I didn’t fall victim to this wicked Col and to keep the time passing as I steadily ascended. It went smoothly and I was looking forward to the descent, which I (incorrectly) remembered from our 2019 fastpack as being pretty smooth and gradual.
Instead, the descent off of Col Ferret had some sections that were very steep, seemingly game trails running down the sides of ski slopes. My feet were hurting, my legs were hurting, and my mind was beginning to slip away. I doubled down on my most-used mantra of the day so far, “To get there, be right here.” It was my way of locking in my experience to the present, of meditating in the moment and not getting ahead (or behind) of myself. To think about all of the remaining distance or time to go in an ultra like this is a slippery slope – it’s never good news, and you’re always going to be out there for longer than you want. But if you can stay laser focused in the moment, then there’s nothing to worry about. You are taking that step. You are climbing that climb. You are running downhill. Just keep repeating, keep staying present, multiply by infinity…. and you can go as far as you want. To get there, be right here.
It took all of this mental focus and many mantras to make it all the way to La Fouly, where as described above I somehow transformed from a pile of pity and despair to a Courtney Dauwalter Fanboy rocketing down the trail shouting “COURTNEY, LET’S F$%KING GO!!!!!!!!” Thankfully the section to Champex was the easier part of the descent, and I knew that once I reached the lake I had no excuses, as I would be on my local summer training trails and just be linking up loops I was very familiar with. I took another 5 minute nap in Champex, and loaded up on crackers and salami, which seemed to be working pretty well for my nutrition. My stomach is normally very cooperative, even on long pushes, and this run was no exception. I alternated “solid food” and Gu gels that I had brought from the states every 30 minutes, making sure to make good use of the options provided at the aid stations when they occurred. Pound cake, bananas, ramen soup, and crackers and salami were my go-tos and they tasted good all day long. I only drank water in my bottles, with an occasional cup of coke or Euro electrolyte mix when I felt the urge. I splurged on my way out of Champex and grabbed a hunk of blueberry tart for my walk out of the station and up the road to the trail.
I had linked up Champex and Trient in the past couple of weeks on one of my last big training runs, so I was feeling good about getting back to my little home hamlet and seeing the fam again. I took my time on the Bovine climb before turning up the pace a little on the descent to the Col de la Forclaz. Once I hit my summer training grounds on the aquaduct trail I went full bore, racing through the trees as I aimed for the familiar pink church and my family. Despite being one of the smallest locales on the loop, the Trient aid station was festive and bumpin’ – multiple DJs spun music inside and tons of volunteers and spectators were getting ready for the long second night ahead. We had been staying next to a nice couple in the village all summer, and slowly got to know each other a bit through small talk in broken French when our paths overlapped. I finally learned that he was a die-hard UTMB volunteer that helped every single year, and he was elated to know that I would be running the race, and had come from America to train in Trient all summer. As I came into the aid station tent he saw me and ran over to give me huge hug – again, a display of the incredible sense of community that stems from this race. He yelled to the DJs who started hyping me up on the PA system – it was slightly embarrassing given that there were many other runners in the tent (some pros!) that didn’t’ get any kind of welcome, but also refreshing and rejuvenating at the same time. They put “Born in the USA” on the speakers and again announced my departure as I head out into the second night, my heart warm and full of love and community. I may have been from the other side of the globe in California, but for that summer I was the local UTMB runner from Trient, and they were proud as could be to claim me as one of their own, for that weekend at least.
Seeing my amazing family (and my wife’s French cousin from Le Buet!) energized me and I headed up the climb to Tseppes for a final time for the summer. The path began to get bittersweet as I realized I was saying goodbye to this climb for a while. I muttered some wishes under my breath (“Hey Catogne, it’s me… let’s do this just like we’ve been doing the whole time, okay? No need to make this too hard…”) and I climbed up the steepness in my French mountain goat gear, grinding it out to the top. My vision started to get a bit blurry on the descent in Vallorcine, an issue that I struggled with during my UTLT 100 miler in 2019, and I vowed to take another micro-nap in Vallorcine that would hopefully remedy the problem. I made a fairly quick pit-stop at the aid station, and I think I actually fell asleep for a few minutes. And then I left, knowing that there were 11 miles between me and the finish, on a stretch that I had done multiple times this summer. I finally let my mind just begin to go there – I was going to send UTMB.
Maureen’s family surprised me again, cheering for me in the middle of the night outside of their chalet as I climbed up and toward the Col de Montets. This was the final climb of the course, and I had recently done it in the daylight so I knew not to be unreasonably terrified of the vert. I made good work of the climb, and yet had not anticipated the difficulty of the traverse across to La Tête aux Vents and La Flégère. The trail felt as if it was constructed out of basketball size boulders, each one trying to knock you off your feet or sprain your ankle in the final 10 miles of the course. I was beginning to feel drowsy and my vision was starting to slip again, so I pounded some caffeinated Gu and decided that this was when I needed to buckle down and finish this thing. In really my only show of any sort of hallucinations, I kept telling myself that I just needed to make it to “Courtney’s Stairsteps” and I would be fine. In my mind this was very clearly the name of the final descent past La Floria, but upon reflection I have no idea why I was calling it this name or how I came up with it. I battled across to La Flégère, where I had enough energy to joke in French with the elderly volunteers there, who were delighted by my Injinji toe socks, having never seen such a thing. And then, after finally making it to Courtney’s Stairsteps, I let my mind drift toward the finish line.
The final descent will go down as one of the peak experiences of my life. I felt like I was flying, finally able to open it up a bit on the gentle gradient leading down into town. I was letting my mind break free from the present and go to the finish for the first time in 35 hours, and I let my brain accept the deluge of endorphins and feels that were rushing in. I texted Mo to tell her I would be there, as my plan was to run across the line with the boys. I wanted them to savor this finish as well, as we all know that ultra-running is never a solo pursuit, but rather a full family endeavor. I had run this stretch in training, while visualizing the finish the entire time, and I let me brain and muscles pick up on that recent memory as I hit the sidewalk next to the torrent rushing through town.
I saw the boys way earlier than I expected and they hopped in to begin running with their Dad. We wound around the final corners of the fences and made the final left turn to run up to the church, where I saw my wife filming my finish from the side. I was ecstatic as we crossed the finish line, to come to a stop in front of the church where I had began the run 36 hours ago. I had just run around Mont Blanc.
And so the journey came to an end, and the dream was fulfilled. For me this was so much more than a race, and so much more than the culmination of a single summer, multiple training blocks, or even multiple years of entering the lottery. Mont Blanc and its surrounding valley have embraced and cradled my family and my boys for over 10 years now, raising the kids as mountain men under her watchful embrace and giving my wife and I a next-level playground of fun and adventure. Mont Blanc has occasionally made things spicy for us, and never left us bored, but at the same time has always protected us and allowed us safe passage back home. In thinking of a way to express my utter thanks and devotion to this peak, it seemed like the least I could do was to take a lap in a single push. It was an act that required complete focus, strength, clarity, and a bit of luck. To circle every single side of the massif without stopping, ending up exactly where I started 36 hours before, is a trail runner’s most sacred act of devotion. And so, I offer this experience up to the beautiful mountain that I have come to love like no other in the entire world. Here’s hoping we have many more runs together in the future.
Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc 2021 – Strava Link
Mat is currently living in the French Alps preparing for a couple of gnarly local races and one really, really big one at the end of August this year. He loves helping Americans get ready for their big efforts in the Alps by making them eat more salami and crackers than is probably healthy for anyone. Head on over to Flowstate Running to learn more about his coaching and philosophy.
An amazing story well told my friend, this is one of the best pieces about running in the mountains I’ve read, really brought me along for the whole journey. Great job on the run too!