To be honest, this "double" scared me -- a lot -- but we tried it because (a) when you have the choice to go to Italy or not go to Italy, go to Italy; (b) the UMS race director, Michele Graglia (a world-class trail runner/coach, and a world-class person) is my coaching partner, and (c) this would be the 5th year in a row for us running the Keys 100, and it is also a very special race to us. So we went for it...
(Note: Part One focuses on the first race of the "double," UMS. Part Two (Keys 100) will be published in the next few days...)
2. UMS 2015.
Last year, Alex and I ran the inaugural UMS, and it was a magical experience not only during the race, but for a week after as well, as we had a long-delayed honeymoon traveling through Italy. This year was a much shorter race. We arrived in Italy on Thursday morning, the race was Friday-Saturday, and we would fly back home on Monday. All in all, we had exactly 100 hours on the ground in Italy.
As I've run the course before -- last year's race was probably one of my best ultra performances ever (33:22 for 175 miles, 3rd overall) -- Alex and I knew exactly what we were getting ourselves into. UMS is a drop-dead gorgeous course with fair and moderate weather, unbelievable scenery and warmth from all the Italians you encounter throughout the race, and (of course) the best food you will ever eat, once the race is over!! But the race still is Europe's longest single-stage race (175 miles long), and regardless of how well you prepare, the distance is formidable. Even though the race now has a 48-hour cutoff (instead of the 42 from last year), 175 miles in 48 hours is still one hell of an athletic accomplishment, especially on a point-to-point course that climbs one mountain and several smaller hills.
In my mind, UMS is roughly three sections: (1) the Italian countryside, from the southern outskirts of Milan to the village of Ovada at the base of the mountain (the first 75 miles); (2) up and down the mountain (Passo del Turchino) (Miles 75-97), and (3) the Ligurian Coast (Miles 98-175), where runners literally hug the Mediterranean Sea all the way into the finish line at the Sanremo Yacht Club, only a few miles away from Monaco and France.
Our goal was to run sub-30 hours and be in competition to win the race.
3. UMS section 1: the italian countryside.
My plan for the first 50 miles was to run 8:00/mi for the first 50k (Mile 31), and then 9:00/mi for the next 19 miles to Mile 50 (in the village of Tortona), for a time of just under 7 hours, and an average in about 8:25/mi.
This year, the race started at noon (instead of last year's 6am start), which Alex and I were happy about, because it meant the race would start at 6am Florida time (and we were definitely still on Florida time when the race started!). It also meant that the course would be a very new experience for us, as many portions of it would be completely different (sections we ran at night last year would now be in the daylight, and vice versa).
When the gun went off at noon sharp, I found myself in the lead pack of two other runners (an Italian named Fabio (seriously), as well as a Swiss guy who I recognized from the race last year). Given the language barriers (I don't speak Italian or Swiss and neither of them spoke any English), our conversations resembled my 3-year-old daughter Zoey talking to my 17-month-old son Witt! (And for those of you new to this column, "Zwitty" is simply a mash-up of their two names...) But it was a pleasant-enough run, and I just focused on enjoying the gorgeous scenery through a 15-mile bike path, then the countryside towns of Pavia, Montabella della Battaglia, Voghera, and Tortona.
Even though I fell to 5th place by the 50-mile mark, I had hit my time goals exactly (50k in 4 hours, 50-miles in a few minutes under 7 hours). But by the time darkness had fallen (about 55 miles into the race), I started feeling sharp pain in my right knee. At times, it was extremely painful, and at times, it would loosen up and I wouldn't feel it at all. Because the pain would go away completely at times, I was not too worried that I wouldn't finish the race. I would just have to re-adjust my strategy and do the best I could from here on out. So that's what we did...
I had a particularly strong stretch from Mile 60 (Basaluzzo) to the mountain base at Mile 75 (Ovada), and I came into the Mile 75 checkpoint at right around 12 hours. (It was about an hour slower total than I wanted to be at that point, but I was pleased nonetheless . . . 12 hours through 75 isn't too bad!)
That's me coming into Ovada and feeling good. I would be incredibly remiss at this point if I didn't mention the above-and-beyond efforts of the Italian Red Cross (Croce Rossa), whose members manned most of the 15 or so aid stations along the course. I don't know how they did it; I saw the same group of 5-6 of them at every aid station I passed through! It was like Alex and I had our own troupe of guardian angels with us the entire race...
Funny story about the Red Cross guys: the last 11 miles of the course (Miles 164-175) are on an absurdly-scenic bike path that leads from San Larenzo al Mare into the finish line at Sanremo. Last year, I hit this section in the middle of the afternoon, and I was suffering from a bit of heat stroke. The guy wearing sunglasses in the pic above was assigned to me for this stretch, and he rode along on a scooter while I gutted my way through that final section. He would never get more than 5 feet away from me, even during the (multiple) occasions where I was throwing up on the side of the path! (I tried putting my hand out, as if that were the international sign for "dude, seriously, give me some space, I'm about to yack," but he was having none of it. These guys are true pros...
3. uMS Section 2: passo del turchino.
4. UMS section 3: the ligurian coast.
Long story short, I finished in about 39 hours (several hours slower than my original plan), but still managed to finish in 4th place overall. (175 miles is a distance that presents problems for everyone, regardless of whether or not it is "your day.")
There were multiple times I flirted with the idea of dropping out of the race, but those ideas felt more like fleeting fantasies rather than an actual willingness to stop. In my heart of hearts, I knew I could finish, that I would finish, and that it would just be a painful and illuminating experience.
Anyway, here are some pics from the last 75 miles:
(what it looks like during the day; I did this entire section at night this year...)
5. The next day.
The ceremony was really nice and very moving, as the national anthems of the winners were played, and all of us who were present shared those knowing looks among ourselves . . . unless you are part of an event this vast and epic, it's impossible to describe just how much it affects you -- physically and mentally -- to run 175 miles without stopping!
We will be back next year for sure, and Michele and I will be making lots of big announcements in the near future regarding UMS 2016!! This really is a "next-level" ultra, in terms of distance, difficulty, and sheer beauty; we hope you join us in Italy next spring!!!