02:45. Fifteen more minutes until the alarm. Toss, turn, repeat. In the end, sleep proved elusive and I gave up trying. ‘Just get up and get this show on the road!’ The self-talk had already begun.
A mixed sense of dread and excitement had kept sleep at bay the night before the Ultra Tour Monte Rosa. Racing in a different country can be logistical and stressful, so I wolfed down an early breakfast at my hotel and walked to the start-line to deposit my drop bags. So anxious was I, that I arrived early and the organisers were still opening up. I had far much too much time on my hands, which I spent gawping at how professional everyone else looked; how fit and strong! Conversation didn’t help, as everyone else also seemed confident and had completed other equivalent ultra tours before. The UTMR would be my first 100-miler and self-doubt would prove to be a constant companion.
Thankfully the dull headache, niggles and nervous tummy disappeared as the race got underway, leaving behind the twinkling lights of beautiful Grachen. In this first section the UTMR takes the dramatic Europaweg to Zermatt (first drop bag at around 38k). The stunning trail weaves up through trees and traverses high above the Mattertal valley. Optimism flared in me, as I was treated to a rosy sunrise on the slopes of the Weisshorn opposite. Passing through black tunnels and over the world’s longest suspension bridge I was distracted from the madness of the overall undertaking!
Photo courtesy UTMR
I planned to stay focused on one drop-bag at a time, so I had my sights set on Zermatt. I dropped into the bustling alpine town at 11:24, just as temperatures were really hotting-up for the day. I usually rush through check-points but in this longer race format, I tried to take my time and get myself really sorted. After a change of top and socks, an application of suncream and visit to the loo, I ate soup and plenty of food from my bag (including rice pudding and a pot of mandarin segments).
Heading out from the checkpoint, I looked for alpine water troughs to soak my hat and top, trying to stay cool on the climb to the Trockner Steg. The area was incredibly beautiful and it was hard not to stop constantly for photos! Progress was slow and it was a relief to reach the Theodulgletcher. The glacier was a long greyish strip, the surface of which had been ‘pisted’ in places. It wasn’t the pristine glacier I’d imagined, with lots of machinery at work, but it helped cool me down! It was a joy to don microspikes and crunch uphill without overheating. The climb was longer than expected but I made good progress up towards the Teodul snack station, where a steep rope-assisted climb led finally to the rifugio’s balcony at 3319m.
Training for this event had been haphazard at best, with my two daughters on summer break from school. The month leading up to the race had included a trip to Greece (with zero running at all) and several runs falling far short of the planned pace or distance. I’d had to settle for 3-4h training runs at most and altitude acclimatisation was simply a fantasy. Fortunately, my body didn’t seem bothered by the thin air at this high-point and I was able to get away swiftly after some tasty soup and a sweet biscuit.
A steep, rubbly descent led to a bleak landscape of rock and mechanical landscaping. For a while I couldn’t see anyone around me and I questioned whether I was going the right way. After a brief check on my phone (using FATMAP), I was reassured that the pink flags were still for me! Marking throughout this race was excellent. At no point was I unable to see where to go next, even though at times I did wonder whether I was following flags meant for something else!
The scenery changed dramatically as I reached the Col Nord des Cimes Blanches and a view over the stunning Grand Lac opened up. Before long I was descending undulating green trails towards Val de Veraz. Here I was confused (and not for the last time) by the strange way that time was passing but distance really wasn’t! Everything felt further away or was taking far longer than expected. I was feeling good after a long descent but the minutes and hours ticked by (thankfully chatting with others) through forest and high farmland before I made it up to Rifugio Ferraro for a snack. Here some sliced apple saved the day, assisted by a desperate drive to reach Gressoney and the next drop bag.
I had stupidly expected a long flowing descent to follow, but what I found (as per the race details provided of course) was a 650m climb to the col of Saleroforko, finishing up rounded boulders to a pale sunset. Next came a steep, rough downhill and a long drop into the night. Darkness had well and truly settled before the brightly-lit doors of the Gressoney checkpoint were opened to me.
At approximately 80km, this was as far as I’d allowed myself to think. I’d never run further (in a single effort) and what lay ahead was a mystery. It’s probably not surprising therefore, that this was my first ‘I CAN’T DO THIS’ moment – a real sense-of-humour failure! Already the climbs had felt so much longer than expected and a glance at the schedule revealed at least 3 more such monsters to go. I had simply underestimated it. Overestimated myself. Was waaaaay off. The task was unfathomable. It didn’t help that it was dark and that as soon as I’d stopped running, my body had gone into shivery convulsions. Was I also ill? I was disproportionally gutted that I couldn’t get tea with milk. Surely that was a basic human right? The wheels were coming off.
In the end, I put on lots of layers and promised myself I would simply walk slowly to the next check-point with bus/retirement support. But within 1h of leaving the aid station, I’d stripped-off the additional layers and was making decent headway uphill, the bright dots of headtorches ahead, strung-out into the sky. Some runners passed me heading back down, heads shaking.
This climb was one of two halves, with the top part dragging on endlessly in the dark, up to the Passo del Salati hut, perched on the 3000m ridge. Trailing in the wake of an upbeat Irishman, it was nice to have some company and encouragement in those final metres. Running had become ‘staggering’ some time ago and at the hut, I flopped into a seat looking shell-shocked (the time was 01:27). The support crew were excellent though, bustling about supplying soup and some kind of tea. But I knew what to do now. I layered-up and pushed-on into the dark, finding the prospect of a long descent less intimidating. The plan was to reach Rifugio Pastore for a sleep because there were no beds here at the top.
As it turned out, I couldn’t really run downhill anymore either! I aimed for an efficient hobble, trying to use my Mountain King Skyrunner poles to soften bigger steps down and protect my knees, which were beginning to feel sore. The descent would prove the longest of my life and finished with many painful rock steps into Alagna town at 1190m. I was so grateful for the cushioning in my inov-8 Trailfly Ultra G 280 shoes! A further climb brought me to the Refugio Pastore checkpoint at 06:13, where I got 30 mins sleep in a camp bed.
Waking to a cloudy daybreak, I’m pleased to say that I knew I’d carry on. The route up to Colle del Turlo (2738m) was a more gradual one – switchbacks and stony ramps leading all the way to the top. This did make it a very long way though and often I was tempted to strike-out directly for the pass! Obstacles on this section included a very angry bull in the trail (which I had to climb around) and an amazing inversion, where I popped-out above the clouds to bright sunshine. I really felt the altitude however, and I was a pretty pathetic sight arriving at the impressive rocky notch in the ridgeline. Descending was painful now and the tiny, weaving trails that dropped down above La Piana in the Quarazza Valley felt like a personal insult.
Gradually I began to notice a sore pinching around my toes and stopped to look at my feet for the first time. Blisters – and just the beginning of further unravelling! I applied a Compeed and hobbled down via a buvette (bought a tin of Sprite!) and shuffled the road into Macugnaga – the location of my final drop bag.
Before the race, I’d believed that if I made it to Macugnaga then I would finish. It was time for the home straight. The last hurrah! But suddenly my conviction wobbled. As I ran through town, I passed a parked car. It was rolling! I stopped to check it but it was now stationary and driverless. My head span and I realised that I was experiencing a sense of unexplained motion, that I could only put down to too much sun or too little water. It was 13:09 on a hot day and with a brutally steep climb to the Monte Moro Pass at 2853m ahead of me, surely I would become a rescue statistic….
In the checkpoint competitors ate, chatted and shared knowledge of the climb to come. They all seemed to be faring much better than me. Less blisters. Less wobbly. More conviction. What should I do?
Supportive crew helped me feel more prepared. I applied about 6 Compeeds! Suncream, sunglasses, fresh top (soaked), extra water, wet hair and face, food and a strong coffee – let’s go. The last big one…
The climb to the Monte Moro Pass is huge, passing through forest, open hillside and finally through the rocky upper reaches between Monte Moro and the Joderhorn. Scrambling the finishing metres to the rifugio, I was pleased to have climbed consistently but now couldn’t eat (time 17:05). I was more than flagging and disappointed to hear that we had to climb 70 metal steps to touch the golden Madonna statue, before we could cross into Switzerland. I staggered up the metalwork and felt a huge sense of relief as I picked my way down from the border using chains and metal footholds driven into the rock. Runnable trails lay below me and the milky blue calm of the Stausee Mattmark was in sight. But as I dopped height I began to feel quite nauseous. Even on the flat trail alongside the lake I couldn’t run. Or eat. Or drink. This was a development that would stay with me to the very end. No matter what I put inside my body, the slight nausea remained. The trail hovered above the road, through woodland as darkness descended and eventually, joined tarmac. I shuffled uphill, on a forever rising contour into Saas Fee.
I would sleep here. I WOULD sleep. It was 21:50 and I got into a camp bed, and waited. And waited… Surely it wasn’t possible that I could go on without sleep? What was wrong with my brain? Why wouldn’t it switch off? But nope – I just couldn’t drop off.
I had around 24km to do. Maybe sheer determination could carry me through? I popped and redressed some blisters, then refuelled before hitting the road. I imagined this section would be a runnable traverse through high woodland, with some biggish climbs. What I did not envision was THAT DROP! Somehow, I’d managed to miss the memo that the trail between Saas Fee and Hannigalp was extremely precipitous and narrow – sometimes with a cable and sometimes without. There were loose boulder fields, broken railings and short rocky climbs. All this in darkness, high above glimmering lights on the valley floor below.
As someone well accustomed to exposed terrain and scrambling, I was less concerned about the difficulty and more worried about my sudden lack of balance. I passed under a waterfall and through tunnels as my mind began to fail. I was completely alone on the trail and knew it was a very serious place to be. All the while, I was mentally checking-out. I think the llamas (big sheep?) were real. I felt that my youngest daughter was with me, and that I was looking after her and making sure she had enough food and water. My mum was inside my head at times too. I had insane facial recognition skills, seeing faces in all manner of rocks, trees and lichen. I sat back and watched it all like a show – periodically giving way to runners behind me who were not there! To keep myself safe, I tried once more to sleep (this time behind a boulder) but was just too wired. In the end, I pressed on and tried to be mindful of the edge as my balance faltered.
Hannigalp seemed unattainable but eventually (6 crazed hours later) I arrived at the checkpoint, wide-eyed and a little traumatised! Barely stopping for a sip of coke and a fresh headtorch battery, I pressed on. Running now, stumbling but racing it in. The town centre was quiet at 05:18 but I had been awake for 49hrs and just wanted to stop. No finish line celebrations for me, just surreal relief and an end to forward motion.
The next sunny afternoon, I sat and watched other competitors crossing the line to loud applause. These runners, coming in hours later, still looked faster, fitter and stronger than me. Had I really done that? Maybe it was all a dream. Results revealed that I had finished in 5th female (and 2nd V40) which was unexpected but felt incredible. Only 91 runners had finished the course, and a further 45 had retired – mostly due to the gruelling high temperatures and impact on fuelling/hydration.
Days later, as I write this (with brain fog), my blisters are healing but my head still spins. It will take me a while to process the achievement. Am I in shock?
Setting out on this incredible challenge, the outcome was completely unknown. I felt I hadn’t trained like other people or benefited from the insight of a coach. I felt underprepared and lacked confidence. But in the end, I made peace with my failings; I accepted that I had done all I could as a busy mum. I had made the start-line and now I wanted to see what my body could do. I just needed to close-down the mind games and keep putting one foot in front of the other.
If I’ve learned one thing from my UTMR experience it is this: Always listen to your body and not your mind. And certainly not anybody else.
Keri Wallace is the founder of women’s trail running company Girls on Hills. She is a summer Mountain Leader and guides running courses in the Glencoe/Lochaber area of the Scottish Highlands. She is a fell runner, rock climber and mum to two girls aged 6 and 8.
All images, except where stated, are the author’s own.