Missoula’s Mike Foote, the First American to Finish the 2011 Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc

Missoula’s Mike Foote recently ran the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc, “the race of all the superlatives.” A complete tour of the Mont Blanc Massif, passing through 3 countries — France, Switzerland, and Italy — the race is 108 miles long. The trail encircles Mont Blanc, the tallest mountain in the Alps, with elevation gains of over 32,000 feet. 2,300 runners competed in this year’s race starting on August 26, 2011. It took Mike just over 24 hours to complete. He finished 11th overall and was the first American to cross the finish line.  

By MIKE FOOTE

Wow.  It’s been almost a week already and there is still so much I need to tell. I have to tell you about the start line.  And the walk from the hotel through the driving rain. And us Americans — a pack pushing through the crowd, jumping over the barricade, and weaving our way to the front of the pack. All the while the announcers work the crowd. Yelling over the dramatic, movie score soundtrack.  The light-hearted jokes and last minute “good lucks” amongst new and old friends.  The rain not letting up.

One minute out and they drop the gate. The pack heaves forward and, 10…9…8… let the fun begin! The roar of footsteps landing on the streets. The flow of runners surging around me. The urge to sprint and the mantra to resist that temptation. We leave town and begin climbing. The first pass is cold and wet and I feel sleepy. Starting the race 2 hours past my normal bed time takes a few hours to get used to.

We are 20k into the race and I am still surrounded by people. The river of headlamps flows down into Saint Gervais. People sprinting recklessly down the muddy trail. It suddenly feels like a 10k. I give myself a stern talking to. “Let them go. It’s early and you haven’t even woken up yet. Breathe, enjoy, stay warm, stay positive.”

We enter into St. Gervais, which I was told would be a party. The crowds are there again with their cow bells in one hand, beer in the other. I’m cold and soaked to the bones, yet the constant high energy keeps my mindfocused.

Les Contamines is next at 30k and will be the first time I see my support crew, Kelly. She waves and screams at me and I put on layers, grab food, and switch out headlamps before ascending up the Col du Bonhomme. Leaving Les Contamines, I feel like I’m finally starting to wake up and my body feels normal for the first time after so many days of sitting, waiting, and tapering.

I follow a steady stream of headlamps up the switchbacks to the Col. While it was raining below, it was snowing up here.  The precipitation has stopped, though, and the stars slide out from under the sheet of clouds. They are stunning and a welcome sight. The ridge sporadically lights up to my left as the lightning continues to the East. I look back to see a river of headlamps flowing uphill. Steady, slow, and bright. Am I really here?

The sun finally comes up and a good chunk of the course quickly falls away behind me and I am dropping into Courmeyer at 78k before I know it. Courmeyer, how dramatic, severe, breathtaking, and quaint you are, with your glacier-covered mountains and medieval history.

I spill down into town and blissfully run through your narrow cobblestone streets. I pass a man, who must be in his 80’s. He has wrinkled olive skin, a big mustache,  and white curly hair protruding out from under his beret. He’s wearing a wool sweater and smoking a pipe. “Bravo, Bravo, Bravo,” he says clapping as I go by. Now is a good time to pinch myself.

I roll into the aid station feeling good. The kind of good that you know won’t last forever but you wish it would. Kelly welcomes me with a big smile. I start dumping trash, grabbing food, and shedding layers. The day is (finally!) warming up. I walk out with Dakota Jones, one of my favorite people to spend time with on the trail. We chat for a while and dodge traffic together before climbing out of town towards Bertone Refuge.

Into the high country again. Hikers along the trail cheering. Small farms tucked into valleys more stunning than most of our national parks. Cow herds peacefully grazing and ringing their bells, albeit a little less eagerly than the crowds in town. The running herd has thinned out at this point and I’m enjoying the time on the trail by myself. When I pass other runners, we smile and nod to one another, never sure which language the other speaks. The sense of camaraderie was ever present though and maybe even more acute without words.

The eventual women’s winner, Lizzy Hawker, is the next character to enter our story. I caught up to her around 85k and we leap-frogged for a few hours down the trail from that point. It was an honor to witness her graceful power on such a steep course.  She seemed to hold the gas down constantly and keep it there.

At one point around mile 60, we were visited by a film crew in a helicopter. It stayed with us for about ten minutes, and at one point hovered no more than 15ft off the ground and 40yds behind us filming. The prop wash blowing dust up on the back of my legs, the whir of the motor, the beauty of the glaciers across the valley – it was unforgettable. Lizzy and I were both damn tired but the moment unleashed a potent mixture of adrenaline and vanity and we powered hard up the hill!

At Arnuva (95k), I feel tired and my left Achilles and right patellar tendon are both working harder than I’d like to admit to myself. “Pain Cave”, enter stage left. Climb in and get acquainted. You are going to be here for a while! Just eat the right foods, get the calories, focus through to the other side. It will get better, it will get better, it will get better.

At La Fouly (110K), I get a GPS in my pack and realize for the first time in the race I must be somewhere towards the front. Meanwhile my crew tells me the course has been changed yet again due to a mud slide taking out one of the aid stations ahead. Taking the news of the course change in stride it sounded like it was shorter course and primarily downhill from here. (I learned later that this was not the case, it in fact got longer and steeper!)

So with the idea that I was only 25 miles from the finish I started to push hard down the valley. I’m in Switzerland now and the small villages I pass through look like something out of a fairy tale. The children set up their rouge aid stations along the way like small lemonade stands. They took to running alongside, handing out water and Coke, yelling “America! America!” Few things made me smile along the course more than these moments.

And then comes Martigny (133k’ish). I come down into the sleepiest of all the aid stations. Mike Wolfe is there. We get what we need from our crews (food, water, much-needed pep talks) and the Montana Boys walk out together. We climb for a while and it’s obvious Mike isn’t feeling great. I slowly pull away from him wishing we could roll through the rest of this course together.

As Mike fades slowly out of sight behind me I hear the most guttural yell from him. FOOOOOOOTTTTTTIIIIIIEEEEEEE!!!  GGGOOOOOOOOO GEETTT ‘EEMMM  MAAANNNNN!!!  And this is when I think to myself, I love Mike Wolfe.

Meanwhile, Kelly is having one of the crazier experiences of her life as well. Armed with her passport, a large duffle filled with contingency gear, and her thumb, she has managed to internationally hitch rides all around Mont Blanc with other teams’ support crews. Most notably was Mike Wolfe’s crew from The North Face whose driver was an Italian rugby player named Seb. Seb drove a sporty Audi and had taken professional driving lessons. Needless to say, he handled the high and windy mountain roads along the route like a champ!

Back to the race. I get into Trient and Kelly tells me it’s a small climb up and over into Vallorcine (150k), I head out of there like a man on a mission, but quickly realize that the “small climb up and over” involves a 3500 foot gain and about 4000 feet of decent. My quads still quiver at the thought of that section.

I sloooowwwwly drop into Vallorcine as the light fades into my second night. I’m officially cranky and tired thinking that I’ve been thrown for one hell of a loop by the decision to make the course longer and steeper after we already started this thing. What else can you do but keep moving? At the aid station, Kelly, who is also heading into her second sleepless night, stays positive. She gives me the necessities, deflects my negative comments, and tells me to get my $%&! together and finish this race. This is exactly what I need to hear. Only 15k to go!

I’m heading down valley towards Chamonix now and I’ve subscribed to the Galloway program at this point. Striking deals with myself that include four painful minutes of running for two blissful minutes of walking. The trail has punchy ups and downs that are harder to navigate than they should be.

I finally start thinking of the finish line and how badly I want to be there. I am at my lowest point and sleep deprivation is inducing some impressive hallucinations. Amidst the low I am passed by a cheery Japanese runner singing “Chamonix, Chamonix, Chamonix!” as he cruises by me down the trail.

This gives me the boost I need. I start moving more purposefully and as I contour around the last hillside the lights of Chamonix come into view. One last decent and then the surprisingly welcome feeling of pavement under myfeet.

It’s almost midnight and the streets are packed with fans. I feel my energy return and adrenaline surge. I’m running hard now and the music from the finish line gets louder. I hear the announcers stoking the crowd. Things begin to clear as I round the final corner. The fans cheering. The rows and rows of photographers. Kelly standing at the finish.

I cross the line and the music pounds, the flashes go off, and Catherine Poletti, the race director, has me awkwardly bow to the crowd with my arms raised. She is gracious and can tell this is new to me. She asks me to say a few words and puts the mic in my hand. All I can get out is, “These are the most beautiful mountains I have ever seen.”

And now, days later, I am still processing it all. The grandeur of the mountains. The  embrace of the culture. The world-class athletes who surrounded me. The feeling of disbelief I had as I walked away from the finish line and Kelly told me I was the first American to cross.

On another day I could have easily been the 20th among the field of runners who came over this year from the U.S. Regardless, I couldn’t help but smile.

So I guess that’s the story. Or snippets of the story anyways. Thanks to everyone who helped and supported me along on this crazy adventure. I thought of my friends and family and community so much along the trail, knowing a lot of folks would be following the race. I thought of everyone wearing their Team Foote t-shirts and I think it kept me smiling, honest, and racing smart. Thanks again for getting my butt overseas!!

That’s it for now.  Until next time…

Check out this video of the run:

Like this blog?  Chances are you’ll also like reading these:  Missoula Marathon 2011 – Bragging Rights to #5, Missoula Running Buddies, and When do you run? Be sure to leave comments in the Facebook Comment box below, and click the +1 button too–it’ll bring Missoula Marathon runners luck!

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Originally from Ohio, Mike fell in love with the mountains ten years ago when he moved out west, and he has not looked back since. He works at the Runners Edge in Missoula and coaches for the Hellgate High School Cross Country Team. Mike is an equally passionate trailrunner and ice creameater!