Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Ultra-Trail Du Mont-Blanc Race Week Day 1 & 2

RACE WEEK IS HERE:  3 days to go until UTMB!

After attending the "Redneck" Party Saturday evening, involving a little bit of tequila and other fine cuisines and company, it was time to get up 3 hours later for my ride to the airport for the 5:45 am flight from Burlington to the Washington DC airport (Dulles).  Thanks to Bob Ayers Jr. for getting my butt to the airport in time!  Getting out of Burlington was easy but then it was to be a long day in Washington, from 7:45 am until my flight out at 5:45 PM to Geneva.  The big challenge in Washington was to figure out a way to get a run in.  I had 2 bags I was carrying around and there was no great place to run at this airport.  The Washington Reagan airport has a whole network of trails out the front door but here at Dulles, it was only highways.  After some investigation work I discovered a public bus that would take me over to the Air and Space Museum at the far end of the airport property and was told they had lockers available for the bags.  I had to wait a couple of hours to catch the bus but at least they have free wifi at the airport now which occupied my time until the bus arrived.  Then a short 15 minute bus ride to the museum and there I was.  As soon as I arrived I found the lockers to ditch my bags and what a deal.  For 25 cents you could fit 2 large bags in and when you returned to get your bags, you got the 25 cents back.  So I was in and out of that locker many times.  I did the tour around the museum which was all indoors and it was very interesting.

Lots of planes from day 1 of flying to the present fighter planes to the shuttle.

After seeing enough I decided to get a run in around the museum grounds.  I did the quick change into the running gear and headed outside.  Going outside was like hitting a wall.  The temps must have been in the mid 90's.  I sort of plotted out a run and headed out to the far end of the parking lot and would follow the perimeter. The grounds were like being in a prison camp, surrounded by tall metal fences with barbed wire at the top.  It was all airport property surrounding the museum.  I followed the fence line and over small hill and dale made a loop around.

Museum running route as seen from the observation tower.
Probably only 2 miles in all but that was just enough to stretch out the legs a bit.  Then it was back inside to have lunch and finish up the tour before heading back to the airport.  Lunch was very limited as all they had was a McDonald's.  I can't remember the last time I've eaten at one but I had no choice.  I did find a salad that looked safe and went with it.  I survived, barely.  I finished my tour at the museum with a visit to the observation tower and then went outside to wait for the bus.  While waiting I remembered a special snack I had, a bag of peanut m&m's.  I dug into the bag but ran into a little problem.  The bottom of the bag blew out and they spewed out all over the sidewalk.  I'm not one to usually pick up food off sidewalks but this was chocolate and I also figured, in a trail race you eat and do things that normal people might think was disgusting so what the heck, with people all around I started picking up the m&m's and enjoying every last one off the sidewalk, except for the one stuck in the crack of the sidewalk under someone's foot.  I had to let that one go.  Afterwards it was a quick ride back to the airport and through security.  I thought I was in for a pat down but instead had the arms in the air for picture time screening.  Maybe next time.  Finally it was time to board the plane.  Everything was going smoothly until we started to taxi out for take off.  Apparently the earlier storms delayed some previous flights so we had to sit and wait and wait for nearly an hour and a half on the runway before we could get in the air.  After that it was smooth going all the way to Geneva, but it was a long time for sitting and made for a long night with very little sleep.

The plane arrived in Geneva, Switzerland just over an hour late.  Meanwhile my shuttle bus to Chamonix was waiting very impatiently for my arrival.  When they spotted me it was the quick dash to the bus to try to keep the driver on schedule.  He kept talking to me as he rushed me along but I had no idea what he was saying as he spoke French.  The only thing he understood from me was that I had to get some Euros to pay him.  So we were off and going to Chamonix for the hour or so drive.  The shuttle bus was some mini bus but the driver thought he had some Ferrari as he flew around the corners and cut off any cars in his way.  We first stopped in the center of Chamonix to drop off another passenger and then the driver stopped suddenly and said something to me in french which I had no idea what he was saying.  Finally another passenger who spoke some English told me there was an ATM machine so I could get cash but to hurry.  So I ran out only to find the machine not working.  So quickly back in the bus to the next corner for another machine.  This one was working but when I put the card in, it asked for a number code.  I hadn't used this card in years but put in a familiar number and... it worked and money came out!  Back in the bus and on route again.  Finally when we got to another street just outside of Chamonix in the town of Argentiere, the driver stopped, got out and put my bags on the ground.  I paid him the fee in Euros and off he went.  So there I was, somewhere in France without a clue as to where I was or where I was going.  After strolling along the street I spotted a paper hand written sign up an alley of the Elevated Backpacker's Chalet, my home for the next 6 nights.

View of Mont Blanc from my bedroom window.

The new home was a small hostel in the center of this small mountain town and only a short bus or train ride into the center of Chamonix, the start of the race on Friday evening.  I spent much of the day organizing my travel gear and then shopping at the local market.  This was another big experience for me as a foreigner.  All the packaging was in french and all the people spoke french so it was resorting back to french 101 from the early high school days.  I did ok for the most part but the fresh cheese I couldn't wait to eat turned out to be butter.  I couldn't find much of any cold cuts to make sandwiches but did find some unique beers to sample.  Trying to be good for the race I kept it to a minimum as far as the beer was concerned.  I first found a Bud can, usually my favorite back in the states.  But this was a special Czech Republic blend.  And then there was some french blonde bier that sounded good too.  And for an extra bonus, these foreign beers are typically stronger that the US beer.  A special treat to look forward to with tonight's dinner!  But first it was time for lunch and then time to check out the trails.

I decided on the first day to get up in elevation to see how it was and discovered a trail just out the back door that went up to Le Blanc, a mountain directly across from the famed, Mount Blanc.  After a long gradual uphill it went into more switchback single tracks until above the tree line.  From there is turned out to be very nice single track that you could see winding all throughout the mountains.  I got to the summit of this peak as a storm was approaching.  Elevation was 2350 meters or so, I think about 7,000 feet and you were totally exposed so I thought it was best to head down.

I tried to take it easy on the downhills to preserve the quad pounding for the race which was hard to do on an hour down a fairly steep downhill.  Overall a great training run during this race week with just over 2 1/2 hours on the trail.  Afterwards it was pasta and beer to enjoy at the hostel before retiring from a long 2 days of traveling.  I did re-learn some french today.  Nearly every one you see on the trail says "bonjour" so I politely I would return the "bonjour".  And I'm using "merci" too when I get something.

I awoke Tuesday morning feeling well rested after a great night's sleep.  I ventured out to the market to try my luck again in finding cheese and also brought back some fresh bread and eggs to make a great egg sandwich to start off the day.  Then it was time to head in to explore Chamonix.  I walked over to the train station and jumped on the train.  They have a great public transportation system in place and with my special pass have full and free access to the train and bus to get around.  Fifteen minutes on the train while looking at incredible views and I was in Chamonix.

Chamonix is quite busy with many tourists and many shops.  One of my goals on this day was to find a bank to exchange some US money into Euros.  Again I was lost in this department and found a bank where no English was spoken.  I was given a sheet with the current exchange rate and the bank charge for exchanging which all meant nothing to me as you really have no choice and it is what it is.  So the $260 I gave the bank translated into $167 Euros.  What I do know is that Coke is very expensive so you might as well be drinking beer.  A 16 oz bottle of coke cost $2.50 Euros or about $3.50 US dollars.  Another learning experience, when I bought a sandwich I thought I was getting a nice ham and cheese sandwich, my lack of french got me a 1/2 a baguette with ham on it.  No mayo, cheese or veggies.  I knew the woman was trying to say what else but I forgot how to say "legumes"  which I think means vegetables and fromage for cheese.  I'm learning, slowly.

After wandering around I had enough and took the train back to Argentiere to figure out the afternoons hike/run.  I decided to venture out to the north and follow the river but soon learned that the river ended just up the street coming down directly from the Argentiere Glacier so I found a trail that headed up alongside the glacier for a ways until it dead ended as the surrounding walls got too steep.  So I turned around and followed the river south towards Chamonix not really knowing how far I would be going but I knew the train also followed along the river and was smart enough to bring my train pass.  I ended up in a very small town of Les Tines and from there took the train back to Argentiere.  After eating so much bread today I decided to only have a salad tonight which was awesome as they do have great veggies when you know what to call them.  For my beverage of choice this evening it was another blond bier of a different variety.  Tomorrow will be a busy day with race check in and equipment check for the required gear needed during the race and then another hike/run in the mountains.  "Au Revoir"

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