The following was authored by Coach Marie-Ange Brumelot. Along with Coach Medina, they have built a community of athletes working together towards their goals. It is, therefore, great to see that the encouragement she instills in others is matched by her own inspiring work ethic, attitude, and achievements. Even with so many goals achieved, there are many more right around the corner to work towards.
Through the Queens Distance Team, #FasterTogether family, and the driven NYC runner’s community, I have had the chance to grow as an athlete and always thrive for more. Everyone supports and motivates each other to keep moving forward and chase their own personal goals. This is gold.
Three months ago, at the Chicago Marathon, I achieved my A-goal by running a low 2:36. I was definitely happy with the performance but celebrating it with everyone is what really made it special. Achievements are only truly appreciated when shared with loved ones. It is later on when I realized that this was the second-fastest French marathon performance in 2019 that things started to sink in. With the Half-Marathon World Championships coming up in late March, I now set the chase of making my first National team.
I have had the goal of making a World team for some time, but never expected it to be a realistic possibility by 2020. But here we are. The training cycle towards the Houston Half-Marathon on January 19, 2020, was quite short but I believed it would be sufficient towards at least making the standard set by the Federation at 1:15:00. We took a couple of weeks to get back some lost aerobic fitness after recovering from Chicago and having fun pacing the NYC Marathon, and we focused on learning to run faster and embrace intensity. Everything worked out smoothly. We let the training talk for itself and set the A goal to sub 1:14:15 and A+ goal to sub 1:14:00.
Race day conditions were favorable despite a strong wind that would face us on the second half of the race. Aware of that, Dmytro and I did not worry much about coming out slightly fast through the first 10km. The second 10km was a battle against the unforgiving headwind. The pace had definitely slowed drastically. A quick time-check at the 20km mark, I was 24 seconds behind my split for my A+ Goal. I ran that 1.1km with the mentality that I could totally make up that time, sped up on this portion where the wind was not a factor anymore, and drove all the way through. I ran for every second, as if the clock would show 1:14:00 and I had to squeeze under. Finish Time: 1:14:12. The best I could do on the day and happy with this result. “A” goal achieved.
3+ min PR World Championships Standard met by 48 seconds. Current second-fastest French HM performance towards making the team, as of January 2020. And 100% confident that I can run a lot faster.
I am at a point in my running when I am slightly disappointed about not surpassing expectations. This comes from setting higher goals and having a better sense of my true abilities. I have to adjust my mindset and learn to appreciate more achieving the A goal. In each stage of a journey, things change and that is something to embrace.
I love the process and the community. Thank you for the endless support, warming congratulations messages, and all the love. What’s next? My eyes are set on making that team. Maybe I’ll squeeze in one more race to better my mark and increase my chances of making the team, or maybe not. That is still in the works. The team will be announced March 3rd, let’s see where I stand then!
Thank you again, and cheers to fast miles for all of us in 2020!
*Congratulation to my loving husband for a smart and strong race finishing in 2:36:19, a 7-min PR! **Also, thank you to my favorite pacer, Dmytro, for the company, the help, and the blazing fast early miles!
From Berlin we made our way to Chicago for the second World Marathon Major of the 2019 Fall season! What an exciting weekend it was for all of us. With over 30 runners, and even more friends and family members, Queens Distance was well represented in the Windy City. This year’s weather fared so well for the runners that many achieved big PRs, one more star closer to completing the six World Marathon Majors, and one more city to tick of the marathon bucket list.
Thanks to everyone who joined us in Chicago! From meeting up at the expo, to eating together, there were plenty of events to meet up. Since everyone flies into the city at different dates, with different time schedules, it is hard to coordinate. We’ve been told “sorry” before when teammates go to a race but cannot meet for events. Remember that there are no obligations to meet up. Doing the best to your ability is all we ask!
There were many, many big PRs this year in Chicago. Yes, the 30+ runners who participated in the 5K and the Marathon put in all the work but let’s not forget the supportive friends and family who came to Chicago! Running a marathon is an amazing accomplishment and that feeling is better when shared with everyone who has supported you through the training, through the bad races, through the PRs, through trying new nutrition or new workouts, they know everything you’ve gone through to make it this far.
This year’s QDR cheer stations were held at the same spots as last year but many went to their own spots to cheer for their loved one. This is fine and encouraged because it helped the runners; there were more chances to hear all the “Go Queens Distance!” shouts on the course. Sometimes, however, it may be hard to spot and take pictures of everyone. Take it from Mike Bocchinfuso who said
1. Cheering and supporting our FAM (and all runners) is a lot of fun and the smiles, seeing your crew cheese for photos, etc, are totally worth it. It’s definitely worth coming out if you can. 2. Tracking multiple runners AND handling photography is TOUGH. I have a new level of respect for the work that Albert and Jose put into their race photos that we get. Not that I got photos anywhere near their quality, nor did I put in the work they do, but I appreciate even more what they do even more now as Horse and Duck.
As hard as it may be, we will be there cheering for you! Not only is it fun, but it’s one of the most inspiring things you can do.
International Chicago 5K
First up for the weekend was the International Chicago 5K. This 5K is similar to the NYRR Abbott Dash to the Finish 5K as it celebrates all the countries who have participants in the Marathon. It’s one of those events where you see a lovely mix of culture in an athlete’s attire; one runner from Australia had an inflatable kangaroo on her back, a group of Japanese runners had cute anthropomorphic pineapples on their heads, and many had flags of their countries as capes.
For our teammates, many ran it as a shakeout for the Marathon. That means two medals for the weekend and a gorgeous beanie souvenier. Others raced it, like Edwin who cracked the top 10 overall in 17:10 and coming very close to a PR.
Get this, we had 30+ Queens Distance members run the Chicago Marathon! For a race outside of NYC, that’s incredible. Many teammates we spoke to were inspired by last year’s Chicago Marathon and wanted to have a go at it. For others, it was another chance at running it from deferring it last year. And for some it was their first marathon in a long time. We can only imagine the nerves everyone had leading up to the race!
Last year, the Chicago Marathon was a humid and rainy race. We know very well how those conditions can affect a race, just ask the three QDR co-founders who ran the race together (both Edwin and Kevin helping pace Maria). But this year, the weather was in everyone’s favored as it was a chilly and clear morning.
Marie-Ange Brumelot led the team coming in 20th place overall female with a time of 2:36:23! This is the fastest Marathon in QDR Women’s history and also the second fastest overall QDR Marathon time! It was a spectacular performance we will not forget and we know there’s more in the horizon from Marie and her husband, Coach Luciano Medina.
Just as amazing were all the other races. There were so many PRs that day; some by a few minutes and some by more than 30 minutes! Not everyone runs for a specific time goal, however, as a few were unfortunately pestered with injuries in the past months. We’re very glad to see that they are now healthier to complete the marathon without further hurting themselves. And, of course, some ran this race as a long run for other upcoming races!
We really love seeing everyone’s achievement and send everyone a huge congratulations on such a phenomenal day!
Full B.O.A. Chicago Marathon Roster:
Ana Soto Brian Wysocki Cannigia Laluw Chinedu Ogueri Christine Nasol Cinthya Sandoval Daryl Valerio David Dominguez Deki Yangzom Denny Moran Diana Wong Ellen Hoo Gloria Morales James Liu Jeff Munoz Jenny Hwang John Pierre Johnathan Tom Jonela Mola Jordan Lee Josep Betancourt Katrine Stroyberg Kieran Garvey Laura Pisani Marie-Ange Brumelot Michale McCaffery Nancy Silva Ray Valderrama Roy Menendez Sara Lee Victor Kyi Wiliam Wong
The following was authored by Nicholas “Flock” Rachowicz, the “QDR Midwest Chapter President” as he puts it! He has graciously helped Queens Distance numerous times even though he currently resides in St. Louis! The commitment to the team goes even further as late last year he set up a spreadsheet detailing, per month, races that QDR members have signed up for. That way, one can find out someone else on the team who is going to a race, especially if it’s a destination race outside of NYC. We thank him for leading the team out in this year’s BMW Berlin Marathon!
The Berlin Marathon is one of the world’s most prestigious and largest marathons. As one of the Abbott World Majors, Berlin makes for tough competition to get in. The Queens Distance Runners Family had a sizable contingent present for the festivities with over 15 runners. The race is known for being very flat and providing for very good times which is evident when you see how the team did overall. Many emotional wins for the QDR squad as they ran from the Victory Column through the many sights of the once divided City of Berlin ending with a pass under the Brandenburg Gate and then the last 400m to the finish.
Even in the rain, team member Daniel Rivera crushed his marathon time giving himself a new personal best over 5 minutes faster than any previous marathon. Daniel described excitement about his victory despite dealing with jet lag, seeing kilometer markers instead of the mile markers and dealing with the paper bibs. “My bib at one point ripped off and I had to re-pin my bib to my singlet as I ran. All of this made it much more satisfying to cross the finish line with a five minute personal best.” In an Instagram post, Lillian Kim exclaimed that this race was an “…incredibly unforgettable way to see my very first city in Europe” as she closed the books on her second marathon. Vikram Singh celebrated Berlin as his 25th marathon and part of his triple crown of races this fall season. Martha Panora and I ran the race together and we both noted that running together helped both of us feel stronger and able to complete the race feeling strong. Martha was able to shave 12 minutes off her best time! We caught up with Keyvan at the end for some medal biting photos and high fives.
While not able to run this year, Ashley Hall captured action shots and cheered us on while on the course. She gave many of us a needed boost as the kilometers climbed. Valerie Lores noted on her Facebook that Berlin was a “…PB in fun” and that it was an amazing experience. Elsie Alonso scored big with a seven-minute personal best according to her Instagram. She was even able to give her parents a hug at mile 22! Nelsey Coste felt right at home running her third marathon with the team even though she, like me, no longer lives in Queens.
The expo was located at the Tempelhof Airport. The airport has a rich history. During World War II, the airport was a place where dive bombers were made, but it was most notably used as the place that western allies flew in supplies to the Soviet-blockaded West Berlin. The expo itself took up the majority of the facility. It could easily be compared to NYC or Chicago in size. Though massive, it was very crowded. Valerie suggests coming early and that it would be “less stressful, less crowded, and that more merch would be available.” The race merch was in short supply by the afternoon on Friday. Many sizes had sold out. I, too, suggest coming on Thursday if you can. The expo was a walk in the park that day. Daniel Rivera was a hero to most of us when he pointed out that most if not nearly all of us were in the last corral and that if you could provide a faster marathon or half marathon, you could be moved up in corrals. Several of us were able to move up two to three corrals and start as much as an hour sooner. This would prove to be a big help as it rained for much of the 26.2 miles. Many of us got a few drier kilometers to run during the race.
On Saturday before the marathon, there was the Generali Breakfast Run. This run, in friendship, was a slow shakeout that began at the Charlottenberg Palace. It was there that runners from different countries and cities showed off their flags in celebration. The run was full of energy that lasted a full 6 kilometers but only increased in intensity as we entered the Olympic Stadium or Olympiastadion. This stadium hosted the first televised 1936 summer Olympics and we were able to run a lap on a track that is shared with greatness like Jesse Owens, Usain Bolt, and Tyson Gay, as well as where World Cup soccer has been played. The team took a photo under the Olympic Rings once breakfast was had.
I asked for some thoughts from the team on different elements of the trip for the QDR family who didn’t attend with us and want torun Berlin in the future. Several family members answered the call with some advice:
Jet lag. Several teammates reported that the jet lag was real. Howie suggests that those wanting to run Berlin to “give yourself a few days to acclimate”. Valerie Lores suggested that those running will want to stay near the starting line in order to minimize their travel time after.
Watch out for cups. the Berlin Marathon uses plastic cups. Daniel Rivera noted that they get slippery at the water stations. Some of the cups were recyclable and were difficult to grip. Many teammates noted that the fluid stations were different than any other race they had run. Nelsy suggests you may wish to bring your water belt with you.
Remember your cash. Some places in Berlin did not take credit cards so cash was a necessity.
Check-in with Nike and Adidas. Elsie, Keyvan, Daniel, and others attended shakeouts through the stores. Daniel noted that the Nike store was offering free cryotherapy and recovery boots too.
Coach Medina. Nelsy, Kristin, and Martha credit our Coaches Luciano Medina and Marie-Ange Brumelot for helping them have successful races.
Post-race, the team parted ways and some, like Valerie or Johnathan Fu, went on to Oktoberfest in Munich and Bavaria. Lillian could be found climbing up mountains in the Swiss Alps. Vikram went off to Barcelona to explore the Pyrenees. Diego Britez came back to the Brandenberg Gate after the dust cleared to take one last photo with his medal. I got on a train to Paris to fly back to NYC (learning a valuable lesson about traveler’s insurance and with an unexpected stop in Madrid) to enjoy a couple of days in my old stomping grounds before heading back to St. Louis.
All in all, everyone seemed to have a great time in Berlin. Your chance to be a #BerlinLegend is now! Registration continues through Oct 31. https://www.bmw-berlin-marathon.com/en/
Nicholas “Flock” Rachowicz, QDR Midwest Chapter President dchiflock on Instagram
The following was authored by Queens Distance’s very own co-founder, Maria Wong! We’re very proud of her achievements and how inspiring she is.
– Queens Distance
Pre-Tokyo & Training
Four months ago, I completed the Tokyo Marathon – my fastest marathon to date. I PR’ed with a time of 3:06:42 under the tutelage of Coach Medina (CM) and in the first class of the CM Sub-3 program. It was an incredibly hard but worthwhile training cycle with people I trust, respect, and admire.
Since fall marathon training is in full swing and the Tokyo Marathon lottery has opened, I feel like this is a perfect opportunity to reflect on my experience in Tokyo this past March.
I’ve always dreamed of going to Tokyo since I’ve learned of it and its culture and food. Running the marathon just seemed like a good reason to go. Kevin and I made the choice last summer when I submitted myself to their Run As One program, where I had to have run a marathon between 2:45-3:30 within the past year.
Let me preface this by saying that my previous attempts at a Spring marathon were abysmal. My training went well with a few hiccups but race day temps always hindered my performance, and thus, my goals were out of reach. I admit that I was (and am still) disappointed that I could not achieve my time goal for both of my Bostons, but I did not want it to happen for a third time. This is why Tokyo was a good choice. During this time, I was also training for Chicago with Coach Medina for the first time, so I was getting used to the hard workouts and summer heat and humidity.
Fast forward to October, my Chicago marathon performance was hindered by stomach problems that I developed early into the race. Kevin and Edwin were kind enough to pace me, and Edwin stayed with me all the way to the end. I didn’t achieve my time goal again and managed to finish with a side stitch. Was I disappointed? A little. I wasn’t sure I could really even run another marathon and had already made up my mind to skip Boston next year. So again, Tokyo was a good fit.
Two weeks later, I started training for Tokyo with the CM Sub-3 group. There were good days and bad days, easy and hard days. Most times, I could barely hold a pace that I knew I could run. It was grueling but I had great company all the time. Everyone was just as motivated as I was to get to the starting line, fit and prepared.
Expo, Takoyaki, and Rabbits
At the end of February, Kevin and I finally embarked on our first trip to Asia together. To say that we were excited is an understatement. We tried to fit in as much as we could: visiting sites, playing with rabbits, exploring the city, riding the subways, etc. My mind has expanded since I’ve visited Tokyo, in a good way.
Back to the marathon, the number/bib pick-up was unlike any other I’ve experienced. It was outdoors, set in interconnected tents, starting with bib/number pick-up. When you enter, you are directed to one of the many friendly faces that scan your confirmation forms. Immediately after that, they scan your face and give you a bracelet (similar to entering a club or multi-day event) that you HAVE to wear until you complete the marathon. Then you walk towards the back to get your shirt and other goodies. The next few tents are Tokyo Marathon-themed paraphernalia, sponsor tents with samples and coupons, and some interactive tents. Honestly, it was all a blur and all I remember is sounds, colors, and a lot of people in an enclosed tunnel. Once I exited, there were picnic tables set up with food trucks all along the way to the exit. Of course, I opted for some takoyaki, which are fried dough with little pieces of octopus in the middle finished with a light drizzle of teriyaki and sweet mayo sauce. It was the perfect snack to end the crazy marathon pickup tunnel through which I just experienced.
The next day, we went to a Rabbit Cafe. It was a wonderful surprise that Kevin arranged that was both exhilarating and relaxing. Since this post is about the marathon, I won’t go into the details of our hour playdate with the rabbits. In short, it was bliss. And it was a well-needed distraction that made me happy and re-affirmed why I chose to go to Tokyo.
On race day, it was drizzling and would be raining for the remainder of the day. (Did I mention that it was also humid and raining during Chicago?) Kevin and I met up with Julie and David to take a photo before we all left to our respective corrals. I felt like I was going to kindergarten all over again. I went to check my baggage and then went on a search for the nearest port-a-potty. I encountered a port-a-potty line that winded around like a snake. In my mind, it didn’t make sense nor did it seem efficient. After waiting for almost 45 minutes, a couple of guys started directing people to unoccupied port-a-potties. It moved quickly for those 5 minutes but I needed to be in my corral in 5 minutes. I literally jumped in, did my business, and ran up a set of stairs to my corral, only to find that there was a separate section of port-a-potties for the Sub-elite. I didn’t even have time to think about that because I just rushed into my corral. I was surprised that there wasn’t more security/volunteers monitoring the corral closing, but I also showed my bib, which ensured that I was in the right place.
As I was standing in the corral, I noticed a lot of other English-speaking runners around me. There were a set of bleachers to our left and one to our right. Once the announcer started speaking in Japanese, I just listened (even if I didn’t understand) and observed what other people were doing. Then all of a sudden, the people in the bleachers to our right stood up and started singing, what I assume to be the national anthem. Immediately after that was done, a huge group of Japanese men (who were dry) showed up to our left and lined up at the start line. The announcer also stated all the runners at the front of our corrals – the elites (because I recognized some of the African names). And then before I knew it, the start gun went off and confetti showered down on us. All I remember was starting my watch and saying to myself, “easy down the decline.”
The first thing I saw and was impressed with was the amount of Japanese women and men around me. They were all very fit, small, and purposeful in their movements. The crowds were loud, but not as raucous as the NYC crowds. My effort felt good and I enjoyed the sights and sounds. I knew that if I looked around too much, I would lose focus. And so, I focused on the road ahead and the backs of runners. There weren’t too many costumes, which disappointed me: Doraemon, Pikachu and a guy in a gold onesie. And then I saw some NYC club singlets: NBR, PPTC, and GCR. It felt like I was home for those few seconds.
From the start to about 30K, all I heard were the continuous cheers from along the streets: “Ganbatte! (Good luck!)” Since the marathon is in Japan, all the marathon markers were in kilometers and miles were marked every 5 miles. I found that kilometers went by really quickly and I quite enjoyed looking out for the mile markers. It gave me something to focus on besides my breaths and steps. The water stations were also spaced out a little differently than I’m used to: the first at 5K, and then alternating every 2K/3K. It was a lot to think about, but it’s hard to miss the stacks of cups on tables as you near them. They also had an electrolyte drink called “Pocari Sweat” that was more agreeable to my sensitive stomach. It tasted like a lighter version of the Gatorade Ice series. For my fuel, I brought 5 Hammer gels with me, which I took every 45 minutes, or 8K. Dispersed along the course were nutrition choices that were odd to American taste-buds; they had pickled plums, chocolate, and other interesting choices that I didn’t even see. Suffice it to say, I didn’t touch any of those tables.
During the first 30K, I did a quick whole-body check every time I took a gel to see how I was doing. At around 30-32K, I did another check and mentally prepared myself for the last 10-12K. As soon as I crossed the 33K mark, my legs started to feel heavy and tight. I forced myself to focus on my arms and to stay with the people around me. I continued taking water when I needed it and just focusing on matching my arm swing with my foot strike. I remember that last turn at 36K before the long straight-away to the finish. I don’t remember many good thoughts or feelings – just a lot of struggle. The wind was strong, the rain was pelting harder, and I could barely feel my thighs from the cold wind and rain. As we were coming up on the finish line, a narrow section of brick-laid streets felt never ending. Every side street that opened up, I expected to turn to the finish. I just wanted it to end already! Then I finally saw runners turning and my heart did a flip. The turn and finish felt like 5 seconds, compared to the last 1K. And then, it was over. I saw my time of 3:06 on my watch and was happy. I had PR-ed by 4 minutes since NYC in 2017. As I was walking, I saw a blue shadow from my left peripheral vision calling my name. It was Michael Capiraso, eager to take my picture and congratulate me on my accomplishment. I was elated from my effort and time and even more so to see a familiar face. Little did I know, what was looming.
The march to the recovery food was brutal. I was cold and wet. We must’ve walked for at least 800-1000m before receiving a bag with a bottle of water, a bottle of Pocari Sweat and some form of carbs. (I can’t remember what it was.) We walked another 400m before receiving a Tokyo-Marathon-themed towel and heat sheet. Then we collected our baggage and went to our respective gendered changing tents, which was a god-send after being cold and wet for several hours.
When I finally exited the area and went on a search for Kevin, I felt like a zombie. My limbs felt odd, like they were taken off my body and reinserted into its sockets. Since cell service was bonkers with so many people around, Kevin and I used Facebook messenger and finally met up in the underground station and headed back to our hotel. We later met up with Julie, her brother, and friend to take back to our hotel so she could shower and fly back to the states. We both rested for a while before managing to move around and eat a lot of delicious food before sleeping that night. Before the night ended, I contacted Coach Medina to let him know how I felt about my performance. I felt it was critical for me to let him know right away so that it was still fresh on my mind. Then, I probably had the best sleep in a while.
Our trip home was bittersweet. I loved our stay in Tokyo and wished we could’ve stayed for a couple more days. But my main purpose in going to Tokyo was to better my marathon time and I accomplished it. Along the way, I played with some rabbits, ate a lot of good food, and experienced a culture that I have dreamed about since I was young. What more could I ask for?
If you are considering running the Tokyo Marathon, take a look at the below Pros and Cons list, based on my experience. And as always, if you have any specific questions or topics I didn’t write about, message me and I will try to respond. Thanks for reading!
Pros & Cons
Very well organized, from the expo to the family gathering area
Very clean (several volunteers were stationed right after each water/fuel station to collect trash)
Easy to read signs pre- and post-race
Very safe (only runners were on the race course; no pedestrians were on the course at any time. Police on motorbikes and police towers were visible on the course.)
The 24-hour one-day metro pass (given in your race bag) is very handy for traveling during race day. If you don’t end up using it on race day, you can save it to use on another day.
Even though volunteers were super friendly and helpful, they don’t always know the answer to your question and will go around in circles to try to be helpful.
The walk from the finish line to the recovery bags, towel/heatsheet, and changing area felt quite long. As it was raining and windy, I was cold and my body was shaking after a few minutes into the walk.
The port-a-potty lines could be better arranged, instead of the snaking line that they use now. Be prepared to wait at least 30 minutes even if you show up about 1 hour before the race begins.
Please bring your nutrition with you as you will not find any Western-branded nutrition (GU, Hammer Nutrition, Spring Energy, etc.) in Japan.
The following was authored by Vikram Singh, an all-around great person to be around with. Besides running ultras, he has shown great improvements as an athlete and as a person. He won the Marisol Mendez Volunteer of the Year and Most Selfless Teammate awards at this past year’s QDR Club Night Gala event, and those are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to describing who he is. Read about his upcoming dream race and cheer him on in August 2019!
I don’t know how long I’ve been counting trail markers to pass the time. I had hoped that there was a quantified distance between trail markers so I could figure out exactly how much farther I had to go. I had been dragging my feet for the last few hours, barely feeling like I could walk. I knew I would make it to the finish but at my current rate, I knew I wouldn’t finish in time for the final cutoff. “Running 100 miles is impossible. It’s too long,” I concluded. This was the first race I ever trained for, the first race I followed a training plan for. It still wasn’t enough. Runners who I had passed in the first quarter of the race were now passing me, around 88 miles in. The “good job” type of encouragements, commonly said when runners meet each other in ultras, turned into “hang on”. I was mentally defeated, it felt like my body was gone and I had accepted that I couldn’t make the final cutoff–that this would count as a Did Not Finish (DNF) at the Mountain Lakes 100.
I had used all the mental tricks, warm thoughts, and mantras I had prepared as pickups in tough times. Now, I was in survival mode. I knew that if I quit at an aid station, in the middle of a forest in central Oregon at the Mountain Lakes 100 race, I could get hypothermia. I had been in such a situation the year before in 2016 when I quit at mile 55 in the same race. I ended up spending time shivering in front of a heater, covered with a blanket for two hours after I stopped running trying to get warm. If I wanted to stop, I had to wait with volunteers for their shift to end, hike to a bail out point and then have a volunteer drive me to the start. The easiest way to get through this ordeal was to finish.
In the nick of time, as I was leaving the final aid station before the finish at mile 97, a man told me that Martha wanted me to finish. Martha was one of the top female finishers of the Volcanic 50k, a race I did two months earlier and whom I got a chance to talk to after that race. She was volunteering at this race and she made sure to cheer for me whenever I saw her early in the race. From that small connection, I now had a reason to forget about DNFing and start trying again. After hours of feeling like I could barely walk, I started running.
On September 24th, 2017, after 29 hours, 47 minutes, I crossed the finish line of my first 100 miler, with just 13 minutes before the final cutoff. I went through hours of gastrointestinal (GI) issues, running alone through the night, quads blowing out, and then shin splints to finish the race at last place. I didn’t realize at that point but the race also gave me a valuable 6 points towards a race called Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB).
In early November 2017, I decided to look up if I qualified for this European race called UTMB. The race follows the Tour du Mont Blanc trail around the Alps of France, Italy, and Switzerland. I’m not sure at what point I became aware of the race but the idea of running through the beautiful Alps had always been appealing. To my surprise, I found out that I was one point off qualifying for the lottery taking place in January of 2018! I earned 14/15 points in three trail races. I needed a race with 4 points to replace one of my 3 point races to get to 15. I basically needed to finish a 50 miler with some significant elevation gain. I immediately decided to see if I could find a race to make up the difference.
Ultra-running, simply defined as running longer than 26.2 miles, covers many branches and races that are drastically different from each other. From multi-day stage races in some of the harshest environments of the world, to looped timed courses (6 hour, 12 hour, 24 hour), to autonomous mountain crossing with no trail markers or aid stations, to last “man” standing types of events where competitors keep repeating a loop every hour till there is one person left (the only finisher). Of the many branches, the most popular and growing branch is mountain running. While Western States 100 could be considered the equivalent of the Super Bowl of ultra marathons in the United States, UTMB is considered the Olympics of ultra marathons. The race attracts some of the world’s best runners and the number of participants, crowds, media, and sponsors is unrivaled compared to any other ultra in the world.
I ended up signing up for McDowell Mountain Frenzy, a 50 miler outside of Phoenix, Arizona in early December to earn my spot in the lottery. To earn a spot in the lottery, you had to earn a total of 15 points within 3 races in the past two years. Races have to pay a fee to be considered for UTMB points so not all races give points. The points system applies to all runners, even professional and sponsored athletes need to get the necessary points. Gorges Waterfall 100K (which I did in the Spring of 2017 to help prepare for Mountain Lakes 100) gave me 5 points; Mountain Lakes 100 gave me 6 points, and McDowell Mountain Frenzy gave me the last 4 points. (Note that for 2020, the requirements to get in the UTMB lottery have been reduced to 10 points within 2 races).
I entered the lottery for the 2018 race but didn’t get in. Lucky, race results and points are good for two years and I qualified for the 2019 lottery without having to seek additional UTMB point races. Since I didn’t get in 2018, I also got two entries for 2019 (if you don’t get in the second year you get automatic entry the third year as long as you have the points). I entered the lottery again for 2019 using my 2017 races. On January 10th, 2019, I learned that I won the lottery for the UTMB race!
Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc is a single-stage, 106-mile race with almost 33,000 feet of elevation gain. The race is the highlight of a weeklong festival at the end of August (26th until September 1st) in Chamonix, France. The festival also includes six other races, ranging from 15 kilometers to an approximately 300 kilometers relay race. UTMB is considered one of the most difficult foot races in the world yet it attracts more than 2,500 participants. While this number doesn’t seem high compared to road races, this is a huge number compared to your average popular trail race where participants may be capped at 400-500 runners.
100 miles is a daunting distance but it’s the massive elevation gain that’s the x-factor for this race. In addition, the remoteness of the race requires racers to have mandatory gear throughout the race. I will be dealing with twice the elevation gain I have ever done in a race (Manitou’s Revenge is 54 miles with 15,000 gain) and will have to do it with a pack, carrying more weight than I am used to. My experience ascending Mount Elbert, with QDR at Colorado earlier this year, taught me the usefulness of trekking poles in ascending mountains. I have long hesitated to use poles in trail races but 95% of the field uses them at UTMB and the advantage of poles increases with more vertical gain, so I’ll be using poles! The poles will help reduce the workload on my legs and help save strength for later in the race. Hill repeats will be a greater focus instead of track workouts for training. While I could do short hill sprints at Cat Hill and Harlem Hill to develop power, 45 minutes of climbing repeats is more difficult to get in NYC. I will be using some weekend days to get away to the Hudson highlands and Catskills to get vert (vertical gain) more similar to the race.
Speed hiking is another variable to work on. With the elevation gain, it’s not possible to run the entire distance. Hiking muscles are not the same as running or walking muscles. Simply being a good runner would not mean I’m a strong hiker. Practicing speed hiking would allow me to increase my slowest speed which could save large amounts of time towards the later stages of the race. Spending time hiking would also allow me to spend more time on my feet and gain training benefits in a low impact way.
For any 100 mile race, one has to practice running at night. UTMB, itself starts shortly before nightfall so I will be running two nights in the race. Training at night would be even more important this time around. I will be getting up in the dead of night to do a few runs with my headlamp on. NYC is well lit and the headlamp may not help much in illumination but practicing while I’m already tired and getting use to having the lamp on my head will help me be better prepared for the race.
Chamonix, the start and finish of the race, sits just under 4,000 feet and the highest point of the race is 8,323 feet so attitude is not crazy high but might be enough to bother some people. Other than getting there a few days early to allow my body to adjust, I can’t train for this. Items such as altitude tents are limited in their benefits.
I’ll be using a mental strategy similar to what I use during marathons: I will be breaking up the race into smaller, manageable distances, thinking of the race 10k at a time. My focus will be in the present moment. I can’t be questioning if I can make this massive climb or if I can make the next 62 miles. That is destructive thinking (negative thoughts compound over time) and will not help me take care of myself to the best of my abilities. I have to learn to focus on things under my control, not simply the outcome. This requires a consistent and deliberate practice of mindfulness, which I’ll be practicing 10 minutes daily.
Complicating my training a bit is the Lake Placid Ironman the month before UTMB which forces me to spend half my available time on cycling and swimming. Cycling in particular may be useful as it would help develop the quads–the muscles that get the most impact on running downhill. Another important training tool, a staple of ultra-running, is the back-to-back days with long runs. The run on the second day will help mimic the feeling of running on tired legs.
The aid stations at UTMB are a step above the U.S. counterparts. Most have sport drinks, water, tea, fruit, chocolate, biscuits, soup, other standard race snacks, and lots of dried meat and cheese. Larger aid stations also have pasta and beer! On the other hand, there won’t be gels or salt tablets that U.S. ultras normally have. I might do a few runs after eating French bread dipped into soup to test what works with my stomach.
This race will be quite different than anything I have ever experienced before. The communities around the race come out to support the runners which itself will be quite the unique ultra-running experience. Unlike road marathons, ultras usually only attract some volunteers and a runner’s support crew as speculators. People have remarked that the finish line crowd experience is like if you are winning the race. I’m also looking forward to passing by the mountain towns and villages of Les Houches, Les Contamines, Courmayeur, and Champex, getting cheered by people speaking various languages, seeing the beautiful views of from highest point Col des Fours and the cool views of Mount Blanc, and watching the first sunrise during the race.
For those interested in ultras but not sure if they should take the leap of faith into it, I would start with the “why”. Even with perfect pacing, nutrition, and hydration, the body’s energy levels are unpredictable and hard to explain. You will feel downright awful at some point in an ultra. The longer the distance, the more variables and the higher chances of something going wrong. Expect to reach points where going forward feels impossible but remember your “why” and keep the faith: “it doesn’t always get worse.” You may be surprised at how your body rebounds in a few miles.