2015 IAU Ultra Trail World Championships

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Whoa… I did not realize my last post was over a month ago after Boston. Time flies when you’re having fun. Anyways, following Lake Sonoma and Boston, I was pretty fatigued, so I made sure I was fully recovered before getting back into workouts and ramping up for the IAU Ultra Trail World Championships. However, about 2 weeks later, I came down with something and slept from 8:30pm on a Friday to 3:30pm the next day. Rachelle and I had been talking earlier that week about going for a hike over the weekend (and I was planning to propose during said hike), so when I woke up and she got home, we went on our hike and I proposed on the 2nd flight of the Dipsea steps. She seemed fairly surprised, but had known it was coming because her father called her immediately after I called him back in March to ask for his permission. Oh well… despite having time to think about it, she still said yes and now we have a wedding to plan (don’t ask when).

Anyways, with that settled, I was able to get back into training. Unfortunately, the timing was not great, as that was 3 weeks out from World’s and I had been scheduled for a couple of solid workouts/long runs, but I was able to make up for them the following week (for the most part), with 5 workouts in 7 days (including the West Valley centipede at Bay to Breakers which is always a great time). Then it was time to start backing off and the taper was happening.


Coming off the Hayes Street Hill (Credit: unknown).

I traveled to Annecy, France on Tuesday, arrived Wednesday evening, and spent the next 2 days running a bit, but mostly relaxing and preparing for the race, and getting drug tested. When I was asked to represent the USA at this race a couple of months ago, I jumped at the opportunity. I know it might leave me a bit fatigued for the Dipsea and Western States, but the chance to run in a USA jersey was too good to pass up. I’ve been dreaming about this for a couple of years now, so it really wasn’t a hard decision. The other members of the team were David Laney, Tim Tollefson, Alex Nichols, and Yassine Diboun on the men’s side. For the women, we had Krissy Moehl, Cassie Scallon, and Amy Rusiecki. They’re all great people and I had a wonderful time hanging out with them during the trip. Most of us were wearing the red, white, and blue (well, really just red and white on the singlets) for the first time, and that really became a theme of the trip – of just how much it meant to us to run for the USA at an international competition. Running as part of a team really adds another level of accountability and motivation that is lacking in other races. You want to run well not only for yourself, but also for your teammates and country. That played a big role in all of our races. Despite this, however, as Alex Nichols also said, the hours before the race were filled with a sense of dread. I’m not sure if it was the course or the weight of some internal and external expectations, but I was not particularly looking forward to racing. Still, I knew I had to give it my best and got myself ready accordingly.

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View from the hotel

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Annecy-Le-Vieux / Venice of the Alps


I lost to Laney in the blood race and the real race (is that a banana in your pocket?!) (Credit: Richard Bolt)

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Opening Ceremonies (Credit: iRunFar/Meghan Hicks)

On race morning (night), we were up at 1:30am for the 3:30am start. We’d been awakened during the night by torrential downpours, but they had stopped by the time we left the hotel. Coffee and Picky Bars were consumed (Smooth Caffeinator and Cookie Doughpness before the race http://pickybars.com/shop/) and we arrived at the start about 45 minutes before the gun. The start of the race was unlike anything I’d experience. Tons of people cheering, flares, and loud music stood in stark contrast to the unremarkable pistol or whistle that graces most US races (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EQirVC3rTqw). It amped me up and the first mile was accordingly covered in something like 6:15. We definitely startled some of the late-night revelers still out along the lake, as they didn’t know quite what to make of 300 runners bearing down on them with headlamps and poles.


The start (Credit: unknown)


Laney and I nearing the top of the first climb – 4,000ft in 11 miles (credit: iRunFar/Bryon Powell).

The first climb of the day was the longest (~11 miles) and took us to the highest point on the course (around 5,500ft for 4,000ft of climbing). I found myself picking my way through the technical parts more slowly than I would have liked. The combination of dark and heavy rainfall the night before left me a bit cautious, but whenever the route opened up, I was able to move up several places and basically maintain my position in what came to be the second group on the mountain. Tim was up ahead in the lead pack, but I figured we had a long day ahead and I wasn’t rushed. My legs felt good and I was ready to run well. David found his way up to me during that first climb and we hit the top together with more flares and music. It was still dark so I kept my headlamp on me, which was very useful when we dropped down the first descent and went through some really dark, forested patches. If I’d been cautious on the uphills, I was downright timid on these descents. I don’t have anything like this to train on Mt. Tam and it showed. I lost a couple of places and was running pretty solo early on. David and I went back and forth a bit, but he eventually gapped me and would stay ahead until the finish. On the 2nd major descent, I was having a really rough go of it. It was really slippery and despite being light out, I managed to go head-over-heels but luckily no major damage. It was during this descent that Alex Nichols came scampering past me and was quickly out of sight. I was in 4th for the team and was slowly realizing that I was in for a long day. I began to wonder how I would cover 30 more miles of similar terrain and basically just had a little pity party for myself.


Nearing the 2nd aid station in the midst of a pity party (Credit: iRunFar/Bryon Powell)

Coming into the 2nd major aid station, I was finally able to open up and run a bit on the flat roads. I saw Bryon Powell (http://www.irunfar.com/) who was encouraging, but I basically informed him that this was feeling like a training run (which I’ve never really felt in a race before). I got some coke and headed back out. The next climb was about 7 miles long and part way up it, I came across Tim who was walking. He said he’d hit a rock with his foot and was going to have to drop. I was suddenly the 3rd guy for team USA and my mentality was forced to change. I knew I had to do my best for the team. The climb had a couple of false summits and ended with a nearly vertical scramble up (48.5% grade at one point according to Strava) through a goat herd which was one of the most absurd and amazing things I’d ever experience in a race.


Pain Cave about 50km in. But LOOKIT HOW PRETTY (Credit: iRunFar/Meghan Hicks)

Roc Lancrenaz 1650m (km 57) – 2nd to last climb. We headed up through the herd and then over to the left where you can see those folks at the top (Credit: Pelloche)


More goats and rocks (Credit: Pelloche)


Luis Alberto Hernando (finished 2nd on the day) braving the goat herds (Credit: Kirsten Kortebein)

The views were beautiful which helped with the pain. On this climb, I’d made my way into the middle of a group of 4-5 guys (2 Spaniards, a Fin, a Canadian, and an Italian). One of the Spaniards I recognized as having been a pre-race favorite for a podium finish and he looked like he was having trouble, but as soon as we started the descent down the most interminably steep fire road I have ever encountered, they all dropped me like a bad habit. My legs were in a lot of pain, to the point where I was forced to stop and recover on the downhill, which I did not like. When it finally leveled out, I saw the Spaniard sitting on the side of the trail. Continuing into the 3rd aid station, I saw Meghan Hicks who said that we were in silver medal position and that the Spanish were imploding.


Me and a Spaniard heading up to the goats. I would pass this guy at the base of the final climb only to be re-passed during the final descent (Credit: Pelloche)

I didn’t know how many guys they had in front of me, but resolved to get back to the guy who had slipped away during the descent. Sure enough, as I turned the corner into the aid station, there were 3 guys exiting. I took a quick stop, got some more Coke, and headed back out. I was informed by Tim that we were in bronze position (clearly he and Meghan weren’t communicating :-P) and that I was in around 18th, and all I knew is that I had to run my ass off to try to secure a podium finish. I didn’t want to be the guy to let us down. Alex and David seemed to be having great races and I wanted to bring it home for us.


Coke at the 3rd aid station. Learning that we’re in medal contention (Credit: Richard Bolt)

In the first couple miles of the climb, I passed a few guys (that Spaniard, a Brit, and 2 Frenchman, 1 who had dropped) and found myself and an Italian scrambling up to the top for the 2,700ft / 3 mile descent to the finish. I was absolutely dreading this descent because my quads were absolutely shot, but I thought I had put a decent amount of time into the other guys that I might be able to hold my position. Wrong. I passed the Italian who was walking the initial part of the descent, but was passed by a Lithuanian, then the Spaniard, then the Italian again who refound his legs, and finally an Irishman. Each step stabbed at my quads and the descent never seemed to end. It was all I could to stay upright on the flat 1.5km into the finish and almost fell over the little platform they set up across the line (one guy actually did). I ended up finishing in the exact same place I was heading into the final climb. Gotta work on those downhills… All in all, this was easily the toughest and most beautiful course I’ve ever run. The views were stunning, which kind of made the pain more bearable. I was unprepared for the damage that the descents would do to my quads and paid the price. However, there really wasn’t anything I could do to prep for them, as the highest mountain nearby is Tam, at 2,500ft, which makes it impossible to prepare for 4-5-6 mile descents that drop several thousand feet. Oh well… lesson learned and I’ll do what I can next time I race something of this nature.


Views (Credit: unknown)


Top of the final climb. Not sure what was worst, the climb or the descent (Credit: unknown).


Laney tackling the final descent of 2,700ft in 3 miles (Credit: Trails Endurance Magazine).

At the finish, we were told almost immediately that we had placed 2nd as a team. Alex was 6th, David 12th, and I had finished 18th. The scoring was done by time, and we were second to the French by a couple of hours, and ahead of the Brits by about half an hour. We were ecstatic. Coming into the race, the French and Spaniards were heavy favorites, and we knew we’d have to have some really strong performances to even get on the podium, as there were several other countries with good teams in the fight as well. That result really made all of the hard work worth it. I wasn’t terribly pleased with my own race, but in the context of the US team’s finish, I couldn’t be happier. The French were simply dominant on the day, sweeping the men’s and women’s team and individual titles (felicitations!). The women also had less than ideal days, but they all persevered and finished strong.


Team Silver! (Credit: iRunFar/Bryon Powell)


Precious medals, precious rum, and Meghan and Bryon of iRunFar. Thanks for the support and updates and coverage! Bryon really kicked my ass into gear at one point. #pewpewpew

We savored the awards ceremony and I made sure to really soak it all in. Who knows if we’ll ever get an opportunity like that again. Then, just like that, it was over. We celebrated a bit on Saturday night, but the fatigue ultimately won. I took the TGV up to Paris on Sunday, stayed with my cousins there, and flew home Monday morning. It’s had more of a chance to sink in now that a couple of days have passed, and each day I get more and more proud of what we accomplished as a team. Alex (http://team.inov-8.com/alex-nichols-why-ultra-running-is-not-always-a-selfish-sport/), David (http://davidlaneyrunning.com/2015/06/02/iau-world-trail-championships/), and Krissy (http://krissymoehl.com/blog/2015/6/2/team-usa-world-50-mile-trail-championships-thoughts) have already touched on this a bit, but the feeling you get being part of a team, especially one that is asked to represent your country, is unparalleled. It easily transcends sponsorships, geography, and personal ambitions/rivalries. There’s an enormous sense of pride and responsibility, and you feel more connected and accountable to your teammates than you do at other races. Everyone knows the stakes are high and doesn’t want to be the person to let the others down. No one did that on Saturday. I know Tim, Yassine, and I aren’t particularly pleased with our individual races, but the team silver easily banishes those demons and is something we all will cherish for a long time. Congrats to Alex and David for monster performances. They really carried the day.

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More precious medals

On a final note, I’d like to thank everyone who made this possible – USATF/MUT/Ultra Running, Trail Butter for creating that awesome flavor, and all of our individual sponsors for allowing us to take this opportunity. A huge thank you is also due to Richard Bolt, who was our manager extraordinaire and, despite it being his first time crewing an ultra, performed amazingly. He was at all of the aid stations with everything ready to go (no small feat), coordinated all of the trip logistics for us, and basically just made everything run smoothly. Otherwise, we’d still be at the front desk arguing over how many nights we were being billed for.

Next up is Dipsea in 10 days and then Western States in 23 days (!!!). Time to get rested.

Strava Data: https://www.strava.com/activities/315262976/overview

Shoes: Nike Zoom Kiger 3 (custom US colorway)

Fuel: 2 Picky Bars before the race, 3 during the race. 12-13 Gu’s.

A few galleries/results links:






About afvarner

Runner. Donuts. Sneakerhead. Not necessarily in that order. Nike Trail Elite. Picky Bars. Gu. Vicory Sportdesign.
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9 Responses to 2015 IAU Ultra Trail World Championships

  1. Will G. says:

    Nice work, BIG congrats! Terrific recap. You look very tan.

  2. Travis says:

    Congrats on the silver and putting in a big time effort. You mentioned that not having a massively step and technical mountain to train at made preparing for this race a bit tough. Now that you have experienced something like this, how will you change training for CCC later this summer?

    Best of luck at Western!

    • afvarner says:

      Thank you! Heading into CCC, I’m really just focusing on recovering from Western, because that took a lot out of me last year. But I will try to get a bit more vert than I did heading into Annecy, and work on my descending abilities.

  3. ScottD says:

    Goats! Gotta love mountain running in France. Congrats!

  4. Paul says:

    Great run Alex. We were out on course and were giving you guys a shout just before AS 3. British voices but hoping it made a change from frnech for you guys! Brilliant team result too. Best of luck at WS100 and hopefully get to chat to you at CCC!

  5. Pingback: 2015: A year in review | And miles to go before I eat…

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