Last year during the running of the 2010 Western States 100 miler, I followed the action as best I could by hitting, hitting and rehitting "refresh" to see if there were any further checkpoint updates. As you can imagine, that makes for a pretty long day, no matter how nerdy your interest in ultrarunning.
That day the young Spaniard, Killian Jornet, drove a furious pace that eventually helped push Geoff Roes and Anton Krupicka to record performances. Jornet ultimately faded in the unfamiliar California heat after naievely failing to stay hydrated. He returned this year, fluids in hand, and won the race. Still, his real home is in the mountains of Europe.
Which brings us to this past weekend and another running of the epic Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, a 100+ mile circumnavigation of Mont Blanc across the rooftop of Europe. Runners climb over 30,000 feet and start in France, pass into Italy and then Switzerland before returning to France for a crossing of the finish line in picturesque Chamonix. The race begins in the middle of the night amidst thousands of celebrating onlookers before disappearing into the darkness. The course winds through the Alps, exposed to the shifting weather of the mountains, and visits numerous 1,000-year old villages whose streets are lined with proud inhabitants enthusiastically cheering on the visiting runners and volunteers. It is impossible to imagine a similar atmosphere here in the United States.
Obviously, I was nowhere near the Alps, holed up in Manheim awaiting the arrival of Hurricane Irene. Thanks to Bryon Powell and http://www.irunfar.com/, however, I was privileged to be one of the moderators of a live "chat" of the event. Collecting various Twitter feeds and serving as a common meeting place for anyone following the event from wherever he or she called home, the iRunFar coverage was as good as it gets for those of us who couldn't be up in the mountains ourselves.
As a moderator, my sole task, really, was to review and authorize comments to make sure that they weren't inappropriate, block spam (there was little, if any), keep any single poster from monopolizing, etc. Bryon, who has done a magnificent job covering Western States, Hardrock and other major events in the past was on the course this time, not as a reporter, but as a UTMB participant. Maintaining his open-minded approach to iRunFar, those of us monitoring the chat employed a light hand in moderating and most comments were given the "ok". Mostly, we kept busy responding to those who'd just checked in with updates from earlier on in the event. There were several of us involved and we split shifts amongst the group, though there was much overlapping as, at heart, we were there as fans and spectators as much as we were moderators.
The shared enthusiasm of those logged in was infectious and included Americans, Canadians, Europeans and many others. There was some friendly nationalist and continent vs. continent competitiveness in some of the dialogue, but mostly there was shared awe and celebration of the Alps, the UTMB and the participants at the front, middle and back of the pack.
I can't even imagine the electricity of actually being there in the Alps, but even following along on the computer with like-minded enthusiasts was thrilling. There were disappointments as reports drifted in of many of the top Americans dropping throughout the day. Those letdowns played out repeatedly as fans, friends and family members checked in for updates only to find that beloved runners were already off the course.
The highs, though, were incredible.
The machine-like Salomon running team owned the day on the men's side with teammates Iker Carrera, Miguel Heras and Kilian running together near the front almost the entire race before an always smiling Kilian (so revealed the countless pictures being posted online) broke away in the last few kilometers to finish just minutes ahead of Iker. The incredible Lizzie Hawker punished the women's field and beat all but 12 men to the finish line.
The pre-race excitement had motivated me to get out the door for a 10 PM run on Friday night and, after Kilian made his triumphant arrival in Chamonix, I found myself lacing on my sneakers again despite the pending arrival of Hurricane Irene. The roads surrounding Manheim are hardly the Alps but I found myself daydreaming.
Those daydreams looked a little like this:
Returning from the run, I tuned back in to see just how far up the overall leaderboard Lizzie had climbed on her way to the women's crown and learned that Bryon had DNF'd. The weather had been less than cooperative and the cold at the highest passes had taken its toll.
Those factors had made for a higher than usual drop percentage. Only 1131 of the 2300 starters made it to Chamonix. The DNF list included some of the biggest names in the sport, including Scott Jurek, Geoff Roes, Krissy Moehl, Nick Clark, Dakota Jones and, yes, even Miguel Heras who ran near the front for most of the day.
Bryon could (and should) hold his head up high knowing all that he'd accomplished, including giving so many of us, who until recently would have had no visibility other than reading race recaps, a nearly-live connection to the glorious spectactle that is the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. I know that I for one am most grateful.