Many things have changed since the last time I was here racing from Courmayeur, Italy, through Champex Lac, Switzerland to Chamonix, France. The ‘CCC’ 100K is the princess to the queen UTMB race at the “world series” of our sport.
My first time here was in 2017. It was my second 100K and first time racing in Europe. As you could imagine, I was totally in over my head, but hey, I had to start somewhere. Despite having so much to learn from these mountains, the elite of elite competition, and international experience, I did have two clear takeaways. One, I learned that racing around the Mont Blanc Massif had just become the center of my universe and the force which would guide my running and racing to come. Two, I learned that the biggest room for improvement would be to find racing fuel that worked for me.
It was my first year as a sponsored athlete and I was so fortunate to have had this experience with mentors all around.They helped with everything- from navigating Chamonix’s hyped streets in search for the ideal (AKA most light weight) required race kit items to enlightening me on the italian aprés elixir, a social Aperol Spritz on the hotel patio with the whole crew before dinner. I have changed sponsors since, now running with title sponsor La Sportiva and I don’t need anyone to tell me when to drink a Spritz (although still with most of the same faces). Those were the pre-Spring Energy days for me, and those were dark days.
In my memory of that race, one thing stands out in my mind: NUTRITION (or lack thereof).
The day started out well on the first climb (4k straight up from town), but soon two girls passed me while going up the Grand Col du Ferret, which crosses the border into Switzerland at 2,357m. While ascending, I could see that the top of the pass was socked inside a cloud. I was getting colder and colder, but my goaty-stubbornness wouldn’t let me halt my groove. “I’ll put my gloves and a jacket on at the top,” I promised myself, also hoping to add a motivation factor to keep moving with haste. The top though, to my poor planning, was the coldest point of all. I desperately attempted to put my poles away for the descent and pull out my jacket from my pack, but my arms and hands were so frozen that not only could I not break down my poles but I could not retrieve a single thing from my pack. I could not even get my front vest strap undone. I wanted to re-tie my loose shoe but I didn’t dare for fear of not being able to re-tie it. I definitely could not open any food.
I made it to Champex Lac, sunny and bright, close to the lowest point on the course and the first place where you meet your crew, having just done an epic 50K that would be easy to seal as satisfactory all in itself. I re-upped my fuel storages, packing my vest with a highly refined energy gel brand not-to-be-named. I remember the numbers 7 and 10. On the 7th gel of the day, my stomach started to churn. On the 8th, my stomach warned against it but my mouth forced it down. On the 9th, my stomach strongly refused it and all I could do was touch it to my tongue here and there. On the 10th gel of CCC, I opened it, brought it to my lips, and simply the sight and smell of that sticky, syrupy mess caused utter nausea and that was that. I ate zero more of those hyper-sweet not-to-be-named gels. I couldn’t even think about them anymore without the desire to vomit ensuing.
Less than 10 gels is not very much fuel in the tank for say, 60K into a 100K. I was supplementing my calories with bars and various aid station snacks like fruit, but I was certainly relying on these gels as my main energy source. Somehow I was able to pick up the pace a bit and at the next aid station, Trient (70K), my crew let me know that I was gaining some time on the woman ahead of me, energizing me from the inside out. The intrinsic energy surge could not make up for an external energy deficit and by Vallorcine (80K), the final crewing aid station, I was fading. Gels were no longer an option and I lacked alternatives. I put some gummies into my cheeks since I still did not want to directly eat much of anything and headed off into the impending darkness.
At La Flegere, the final aid station of the race, on the ski slope right above Chamonix, I felt so close but oh so far. I was truly faded and the aid station volunteers, seeing my dazed look, shined a light into my pupils and said I needed to stay and sip broth for at least 45 minutes before leaving. I did not have 45 minutes to wait! I was the 5th female and the top 5 podium. I had some Coke and went off down the mountain with very slow reaction time- clumsily following switchbacks on the rooty trail all the way down to town in the dark. I finished! And held my place on the podium! Then I was quickly escorted to the medical tent to revive. If they had an IV of calories at that point I would have taken it. Pizza and gelato would suffice!
The root cause of my downfall in the race that year was the intense nausea linked to the highly refined energy product, not agreeing with my stomach, and I am not the only one. I take full credit for my performance of course, but it resulted in my inability to fuel altogether. Unsurprisingly, stomach problems are the highest cited problems for runners in ultramarathons with nausea being the most mentioned problem and also the greatest cited reason for people to withdraw altogether.
Later that year, I happened to discover Spring Energy and you know what? Ever since my very next race with Spring, I have never had to stop eating in a race due to “stomach problems” ever again. With immediate success, I was able to eat all day through a race, happily, and even consider eating a Spring gel at the finish line! Seriously, it was a crazy turnaround, one that I did not think was possible, thinking that “all gels were gels”.
When examining the ingredients though, one quickly realizes that all gels are surely not the same. Spring uses whole foods such as basmati rice or oats, fruit, nuts, and honey or maple syrup and more. Whole foods that your stomach is used to eating and doesn’t fatigue your palate like those gels not-to-be-named whose ingredients are multiple types of sugar and laboratory-refined carbohydrates.
Real-food based fuel, akin to my real-food based diet, is now my not-so-secret weapon.
It’s 2022, 6 years since my first performance here around Mont Blanc, and I am stoked knowing I can improve upon my effort, especially with my nutrition game now dialed.
I have had two successful ultras in the buildup for this year’s CCC, the Madeira Island Ultra Trail 85K and Ultra Dolomites of Lavaredo 80K. In both, I utilized Spring Energy gels as well as other whole foods like dried fruit (dried mango and dates are my favorite) and nuts. When I didn’t have Spring Energy bars available I utilized bars made from simple ingredients- nuts, seeds, dried fruit, and honey. I eat after the first 90 minutes and eat a gel every 45-60 minutes after that. Canaberry (100 calories), Awesome Sauce (180 calories), and the WolfPack (350 calories) are my tried and true favorites. I supplement gels with other real food snacks, as mentioned. With 5 and a half years of a strong track record, I know that my stomach will be able to endure with Spring Gels for the 100 kilometers (12+ hours…). Can my mind and body?! That is to be found out this Friday, race day!
Until then, I will be running easy, rock climbing, hanging out, eating nutrient dense real foods, and of course, having a Spritz here and there to ease the nerves!