“In an ultra marathon, and particularly one of 100 miles or more, you get to a place, a state, that you never go to in the rest of your life. A tiredness so extreme that you’re now just surviving, trying to stay alive. Of course, you have a get-out, you know you can stop, but to keep going, you are faced with an extreme reality.” – Adharanand Finn
I just finished reading Adharanand Finn’s new book, The Rise of the Ultra Runners: A Journey to the Edge of Human Endurance. It’s an inspiring account of his journey into the heart of the ultra running world and how he became one of us. The book ends with his experience running the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) in 2018, the same year I ran the race. His wonderful descriptions of the course and the highs and lows of the race made me think a lot about my own experience in the Alps. I have many memories (and memory gaps) of that 38.5 hour suffer-fest, but there is one moment that I keep coming back to, an experience so mysterious that I’m still not sure exactly what it means. Deep in the mountains on an early Sunday morning, the lines between reality and imagination, between consciousness and sleep, got blurred. In a moment that could have been two minutes or two hours, I seemed to have lost my mind.
UTMB is one of the most challenging footraces in the world. It’s around 106 miles long, beginning in the French Alps and winding through the mountains in Italy and Switzerland before returning to Chamonix. A runner must climb a total of around 32,000 feet before they finish, and the weather conditions might cover all four seasons while you’re out there. Most non-elites will spend two full nights in the snow-capped peaks, and the urge to sleep becomes so irresistible that some will simply find a place on the side of the trail, lay their heads on their packs and doze. This is so common that the race gives each runner a tag to attach to their pack or clothing that basically says, “I’m not hurt. I’m only sleeping.”
Adding to the challenge, the race starts at 6pm, meaning that by the time you begin you have already been up for an entire day, unless you’re one the fortunate few who can calm your nerves enough to take a long nap in the afternoon. I was not one of those people, and I had been awake for about twelve hours when I lined up at the starting line, directly beneath the spire of Église Saint-Michel de Chamonix-Mont-Blanc, the town’s Catholic church. Inside, a stained glass window depicts alpiners climbing toward a peak while Saint Bernard, the patron saint of mountain climbers, looks down and steps on a red dragon-like creature, a threat to the hiker’s safety.
I knew it would be a challenging event, but I had no idea what would happen to me before I once again laid eyes on that church.
By Sunday morning around 2am, I had been awake for nearly forty three hours straight and racing for about thirty two. I left an aid station and headed for the next big climb. I don’t remember the names of the station or the mountain. I do know that on the road out of the village, I passed an outdoor “stations of the cross”, a series of statues depicting the stages of the crucifixion of Jesus. The theme of suffering was not lost on me.
The timeline for what happened next is a little hazy. I know I was very sleep-deprived. I remember climbing on a switchback trail, my headlamp brightly illuminating the ground in front of me. I gazed up the mountain and saw other headlamps, tiny in the distance, slowly moving toward a peak that seemed to be a world away from me. My eyes kept closing and I was actually starting to fall asleep on my feet. I have never wanted to sleep so badly in my life, but I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to continue after I woke up. And then time seemed to stop. The light from my headlamp expanded forward and to the sides. Everything around me was bright. As far as I could see, there were small smooth stones scattered on the ground, the type of stones you might skip across a pond. The stones were glowing and on closer inspection they all contained images. Each one had what appeared to be an icon, some of the Virgin Mary and some of Jesus Christ. I was amazed. “How did these get here?,” I wondered. I thought perhaps this was the site of some old monastery or the home of an artist who painstakingly etched these images by hand. I leaned down close to them and looked around for other runners, excited to tell them about my find (luckily, I didn’t meet one…I don’t think).
I do not know how long this lasted, but at some point I became aware that I might be having a hallucination. I tried to focus on the task at hand but I couldn’t even remember why I was on the trail. I could not recall the name of the race and I kept thinking I was back home in the Adirondacks. Then I looked down at my bib and saw “UTMB” and it all came back to me. “Just get to the next aid station,” I said, “And don’t talk to anyone or they’ll pull you off the course for sounding loopy.” But the struggle to focus continued. I just kept repeating, “You’re in UTMB, you’re in the Alps, get to the next aid station.” Finally, in the distance, I saw the lights of the old barn that served as our next refuge. I stumbled in and sat down. Runners were sleeping on the floor or slumped on benches in a corner, others were hobbling back out to the course. A volunteer offered me coffee and I probably drank an entire pot. I don’t know how long I stayed there, but the caffeine kicked in and I headed back out the door. I never slipped back into that dreamlike state again and was running at a good pace as the final miles of the race went by. As I entered the village of Chamonix, I saw the church in the distance and thought of Saint Bernard on the stained glass. I knew I was close. I finished and later fell asleep leaning against the wall of the shower in my hotel room.
The next day, as I was preparing for my trip back to the States, I unpacked the vest I wore during the race. I emptied my water bottles and threw out used gel packs and other trash. When I reached into one of the pockets, my fingers wrapped around four small smooth stones, the type of stones you might skip across a pond. I must have picked them up, though I do not remember doing so. They had no images. I put one of them in my travel bag and then walked outside and put the rest in the landscaping of the hotel. The stone I kept rests inside a little box placed next to by race bib and other paraphernalia from UTMB. I occasionally pick it up and push it through my fingers, remembering one of the most unusual experiences of my life.
Hallucinations are not uncommon in extreme endurance events. Sleep-deprivation, mental and physical exhaustion, and, in my case, perhaps the altitude, can make you see some strange things. They are some of our favorite stories to tell and the things we “see” vary depending on the person. Perhaps these visions are some mix of our hopes, fears, beliefs, and experiences. A priest I know said he thinks it wasn’t a hallucination, but instead a divine intervention to help me get through a tough moment. I don’t know for sure what it was, but I kinda like his idea. Maybe I don’t need to know for sure.