Miguel & The Majestic Mountains

Coach Miguel “Ige” Lopez, 38, recounts how he scaled the ultimate trail run of his life yet, the prestigious Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) in the Alps last August 28.

I received my acceptance e-mail for UTMB in January 2015. To get accepted, you have to put your name in for the lottery. To enter the lottery, you have to have achieved a certain number of points from joining three ultra-distance qualifying races. I prayed and discussed my plan with my family. I prioritized my races for 2015. I fixed my schedule well so I could enjoy multisport races and other trail running events. I planned to lower my swim and bike mileage though, to focus on mountain trail running. I didn’t mind since my first love is running in the great outdoors. Without hesitation, I made my own training program for this long-awaited race.

Stumbling block

I wanted to do multisport races in the first half of 2015 to prepare for UTMB, then focus on race-specific training from May. But things didn’t go as planned. I took a bad spill on a track the day before XTERRA Philippines on February 7. I slipped off my mountain bike and had a big gash on my right knee which needed several stitches. I was bummed with what happened. UTMB was six months away but I had to let the wound heal for weeks and build up again for the race. I healed fast but my mobility was another question. My right leg got smaller in bulk since I wasn’t using it, so I had to do a lot of physical therapy to regain my leg strength. It was a tedious three months of recuperating, strengthening, and lots of stability exercises so I could be confident using my right knee and leg.

Getting back on track

You could say I was as stubborn as a mountain mule. I hadn’t fully recovered when I joined my first trail run race one month after my mountain bike accident. I ran inaugural “Cordillera Mountain Marathon” in late-March. I did the race as a confidence-builder and to jumpstart my training for UTMB. I finished 22nd place overall. I was just happy to finish, period. The downhill was brutal and I took extra care going down. My uphill was okay and my overall endurance was quite decent. This race made me want to do UTMB more.

In the following months, I joined several road and trail runs to hone my speed and endurance while including triathlon in my ultra-running training. My tuneup race for UTMB was “The North Face 100-km UltraTrail Run” in Nuvali, Santa Rosa, Laguna on June 12. I came in 9th overall. This made me very happy as I was in the top 10 again and boosted my confidence for the big dance in August.

Touchdown: Chamonix, Mont Blanc

We arrived in Chamonix, Mont Blanc in France August 24, so we could absorb the race energy and familiarize ourselves with the weather, climate and surroundings. Back in the Philippines, I wasn’t able to train in the high mountains for the cold so I prepared my cold weather gear as best as I could. In Chamonix, the weather was perfect for trail running—as low as 11 degrees Celsius at night and as hot as 34 degrees Celsius in the daytime. The 2015 Philippine team rented a small apartment in Chamonix. The team was composed of Mia Constantino, 27, a Fil-Canadian bike mechanic; George Javier, 38, a printing businessman from Los Banos; Roland Wangwang, 29, a nurse from Bontoc, Mountain Province, and Xerxis Tan, another Fil-Canadian, and myself. We had a memorable time bonding as a team in Chamonix. We shopped together, cooked food, and ate together. The experience living with them for a few days in the mountains was great. We did a short, 90-minute training run around the slopes of Aiguille du Midi, a route full of fantastic views and awesome wildlife. We picked up our kits, did a trip to the expo, dropped off our special needs bags to the organizers, soaked in the pre-race energy, and enjoyed the lovely town of Chamonix. Race day was August 28 which was also my daughter Yana’s 4th birthday. We had a small celebration Friday morning and were so happy to spend her birthday together as a family in a wonderful place surrounded by mountains and glaciers. It was just pure beauty.

The trail they call Trail du Mont Blanc!

Gunstart was at 6 p.m. The sun was still out and the weather was warm. Some 2,300 plus runners from 87 countries ran with all their hearts with only one goal: to finish the daunting challenge in less than 46 hours.

The starting area was so packed that it took us 10 minutes just to cover 100 meters. But the energy was so great! People throughout the town of Chamonix were cheering. Loud cheers at the hotels, cafes, stores, and parks around the area were heard. It was so much fun!

As a spectator, you can see the throngs of runners along the route. Throughout the race, I could hear different languages being spoken by the runners. The terrain of the course changed dramatically as we ran from France to Italy to Switzerland and back to France. From deep lush forests to rocky singletracks to lots of roots and mud it was definitely one epic adventure run. Climbing up and running down 11 peaks throughout the whole 168-km trail was a surreal, exhilarating experience.

The first few kilometers were pretty managaeable but I was just an hour shy from the cutoff time of 1:00 p.m., Saturday. This motivated me to change my strategy. I told myself to keep a steady pace and avoid long stops at aid stations. The warm and well-stocked aid stations were a good break from long hours of running in the mountains. But I cut down the length of my stay in each station to five minutes to keep a comfortable buffer.

It was at Courmayeur, Italy (Km 77) where I felt I had to start increasing my pace just to be comfortable enough to enjoy the race. I sacrificed sleep on the first day— I only had 15 minutes of sleep—to make up for lost time on the run and move away from the high mountains as soon as possible so I wouldn’t be too exposed to the extreme weather. By kilometer 122 in Champex Lac, Switzerland, after 30 hours of running, I was tired but still anxious to climb up and down the last three mountains which were all above 2000 meters. Again, I slept for only 15 minutes on the second night to gain more time to run.

Overcoming fatigue

At the second to the last mountain, I hit kilometer 144 in Catogne, Switzerland (2,027 meters) in the early hours of the morning. I continuously climbed the summit in the dark until I felt my pace was getting slower and people were passing me easily. I sat down to catch my breath as my heart rate was quite high for such an aerobic pace. As soon as I did, I automatically shut down and slept while holding on to my trekking poles. I dreamt that I finished the race and I was celebrating. But I was questioning it because it was still night time and I was still in the middle of the mountain. I woke up with a shock. I checked my Suunto. I slept sitting up, holding my trekking poles for almost 40 minutes. I panicked so much that I rushed up the mountain, and ran downhill while constantly glancing at my watch to check if I can make the cut off in decent time.

I caught up with my teammate Roland Wangwang on the approach to Tete auxventsback in France, which was at 2,130 meters and marked kilometer 155 of the course. It was so close to the finish line in Chamonix and we knew we would make the cutoff. We decided to run together to the finish as we both wanted to savor the last few hours of this majestic course. We took selfies and pictures of our surroundings. We circumnavigated three countries in almost two days. This was a feat we had dreamed of. We wanted to cherish this experience.

By 11:10 a.m. of Sunday we crossed the finish line of the 2015 Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc after 41 hours, 10 minutes, and 48 seconds of running, fast hiking, walking. It is my best race experience so far. I hope to do the UTMB again. If the trails excite you and doing very long hikes and runs with only a hydration pack on you to survive the challenge, UTMB is a must-do. It redefined ultra-trail running for me. It changed my life.

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