Vulcano Ultratrail race, aka VUT, is a set of mountain-running races taking place around volcano Osorno, in the Chilean Lake region. The 70K race was my first race in Chile in 2016. After the arrival of twins in my life and the possibility to finally enjoy my heart at its full potential, I felt like to run the 100K. Two years I didn’t put a bib in my short, you can imagine the (positive) pressure I had at the starting line. But before telling you how it went, let me explain what is happening with my heart.
Act 1: I have a small problem.
We are in 2010. I have just purchased my first mountain-running shoes (Salomon Ultra Pro 3D, still in store today), my first cardio watch and my first mountain-running magazine full of training plans. A wonderful world is opening to me, with guys leading the way such as Marc Olmo or the rising star Kilian Jornet. Me too I want to run unlimited kilometres and moving fast in the mountains with a light foot.
Obviously, the first races show me the hard truth: I suck at mountain running. Big time. But I am stubborn! I am twenty-five, a good engineer job in a big company, stable enough not to worry until my retirement. Life is easy for me, I am a rock star, I drive a Fiat Panda 4×4 mk2. Suffering as never and ending the last competitor at local races, when I don’t DNF, this is for me a revelation. I love it! I love it because it teaches me humility, with my 10 min/km pace and old runners passing me and laughing about it. I love it because it extends my comfort zone. I love it because beers never taste better than after a painful race.
Life is nevertheless not a peaceful river. After crashing my beautiful Fiat with a tree’s help, another bump occurs in my daily training. My cardio shows me a tendency to get sometimes super high in frequency: 200 – 220 bpm is a cardiac zone I experience a lot, a zone with a strong taste of blood in the throat. Of course, Internet is not helping to provide good information except that I will die in the next fifteen minutes, so I check with my doctor, who sends me to a cardiologist, who tells me directly to trash the watch. Ok, but he doesn’t pay for it. After more simple tests, I am perfectly fine for him, and his advice is to run without a cardio. I try to check the gear with the help of the manufacturer without finding anything. Ok, so I start doing as told.
I continue to race, with more or less success, success highly correlated to the time spent in this death zone. But racing is still fun for me, and I am told that everything is fine with my heart, so why stopping?
Act 2: a small problem which isn’t small.
Back to beginning of 2019. I am still not a strong runner, but perseverance allowed me to end an 80K race in 2017, with 4500 meters of elevation gain, in less than 15 hours. I didn’t throw up at the finish line, but it was close. My heart still likes going high with rhythms over 200, but my experience taught me to see it as an excess of fatigue. I know also that it’s tachycardia for real, by using a great tool called fingers to check my pulse. The huge drawback is I have tachycardia at each big run, at least for 30 minutes each time. Every episode ends with bonking, and difficulties to end the run.
So, beginning of 2019. Father of two four months old twins and happy owner of eight kilos of overweight, I decide to get back to training. I suck at mountain running. I suck also at climbing. But I am a better climber than the average runner, and more endurance than the average climber. Alpine climbing should be my thing, and I orient my training to be better at it. Of course, I purchase Steve House and Scott Johnson’s book, and at the first reading, I take a big slap. Steve House, an elite in alpine climbing trains less hours per year than me! Ok, there is something wrong with me, and you see me coming now, the heart must be checked again.
After speaking with Scott Johnson and having my heart checked with Chilean cardiologists, the first diagnostic is I have paroxysmal tachycardia. Don’t panic, a quick surgery will solve the problem. But I am going too fast. I need to explain you first what’s what.
First, the paroxysmal tachycardia. It results of a problem of muscular cells transmitting currents similar to the nervous system to pilot the heart. The heart, when he receives it, detects that something is wrong, and switches in an emergency mode at 200 bpm for tens of minutes. The heart uses 60% of the circulating blood for its own functioning, explaining why during these phases of tachycardia my stamina is drained fast. It also deteriorates my recovery performance because the cardiac muscle needs to recover as well as others. Fixing it would allow so to boost my endurance and recovery performances without having to follow any long training.
Then, what the procedure is exactly. Despite difficulties to get a diagnostic, the chirurgical operation is quite simple and current. A catheter is passed from a vein starting from one leg until the heart, and a device inside is used to excite by radiofrequency heart’s cells. Once the bad ones are located, the same catheter device is used to burn them in order to destroy any electric transmission capacities. All of that with me awaked, to avoid a too low heart rhythm.
However, procedure is a total failure. Diagnostic is not the right one: I have an electric problem, but cells incriminated are located at pulmonary veins. It is not so paroxysmal tachycardia but paroxysmal auricular fibrillation. According to the doc, this is no good. If nothing is done, my lifetime would be shortened by an increased sensibility to hypertension, diabetes and all other old people’s diseases.
Two solutions exist to fix this problem. The first one is another procedure, longer and more complex, with a success rate of 70% in Chile. Maybe more in France. The second one is taking pills, 50% of success. I will take the time to think about the procedure. Because it is more complex, I want to understand everything before giving the green light. But I started the pills “al tiro” and the Cerro Retumbadero expedition (total failure but still a fun one) showed me that pills are working. You can imagine the joy when I understood that tachycardia is now under control.
I can now begin to think about my VUT race… in nine weeks. Wooo, this is short. Even shorter with twins. But my body has seen a huge improvement. Differences are so big that I have the feeling to have a new body. I need to learn how to react to these new sensations, but I enjoy a boost in my recovery ability, and I can now increase my training load, big time. Now, fatigue is coming through my legs’ muscles, and now general feeling. It never happened before!
Act 3: First part of the race.
Starting time is at midnight. This is the perfect time for me, as I generally don’t succeed to sleep before such an event. Two hundred runners show up at the starting line, and weather forecast is perfect for running: not too hot, neither too cold, a sun masked by clouds and no rain at all. A great day in perspective.
As usual, runners pack starts too fast, and I need to wait km5 to get a real sense of the race. Having kept my rhythm under control before, I can now finally catch and pass others. Sand is the major difficulty of this VUT race, and I used first kilometres to find a quite efficient stride. Time to time, I feel as if I have tachycardia, but none really happened. This race is starting really great for me!
Running an ultra with a majority of Chilean is different from elsewhere. Locals are highly competitive, even among the last runners. You can forget here solidarity and community spirit: here I was shouted at because I was too slow when helping another runner with his pack; there, a runner got back on the trail after a break, just on time so I could hit his backpack with my face. It is obnoxious. Hopefully, I have some tools in my pocket, and the next climb is a good opportunity to make them explode of fatigue. Another issue for a 1m85 tall guy in Chile is volunteers don’t clean high enough in forest sections, and I need to run bended, loosing so time and stamina.
However, there is no tree in alpine sections, and I can run here normally. The second race’s climb is a vertical kilometre with end bonus. Still in great shape, I succeed to catch lot of runners during this steep climb. Despite a perfect marking, one the first woman gets lost all the time. Before being aware of that, I tried to keep her rhythm when she passed me, in order to save some brain power. But giving her responsibility of navigation was a mistake and I pass her again after she got us lost three times. She is not pleased with that, and then follow her cycle passing me, getting lost, getting passed…
After 1100m of elevation gain just in this climb, we finally arrive in a rockier ground. Osorno volcano appears with first lights of the day, and I arrive sooner that expected at the aid station / Osorno hut. The hut is overheated, and I decide to stay just two minutes, time to refill my flasks. I think it would be a mistake to stay longer and getting used to the heat. I know I am right when getting back outside when the cold slaps my face. Few runners pass me afterwards, but a new kind, like super fit and super strong. I have seen plenty of runners in the hut, and according to the next volunteer, I am among the first runners of the race. Maybe he’s right, because I don’t belong to this front pack. But I am too excited to be there, and despite knowing it is a mistake, I try to follow the rhythm in the long and technical descent down to basecamp.
Of course, I will pay the price of the mistake further. I bonk few minutes later, not having fed myself well before due to stomach issues. My shoes are super rigid, it was great before and they are now hurting my ankles. My hope is crushed, my brain is on vacation, and the asphalt leading to basecamp is destroying all the rest. Hopefully, Mathilde could fix me there.
Act 4: second part of the race.
Mathilde is waiting for me at the basecamp, with our twins and our au pair Liantsoa. I can definitely say I am far from good, but there is too much comfort here, I cannot stay more than half an hour without DNF Mathilde is f* perfect. She reloads my pack, forces me to feed myself and tells me it will be ok. I don’t believe here for the last part. I take advantage of the dropbag to change my shoes for a softer model and some clothes. Time for me to face new conditions: it is 8 o’clock and the sun is already warm. I go back to the race, with no motivation whatsoever, cramps in my carves, dolour in my knees and a painful left ankle. A good combination for facing the last 60k.
First meters are awful. I stretch, run, stop, repeat. The morning great shape is no more. But I am not the only one, because I will move the next 30 kilometres alone, seeing almost nobody, for six hours. In these surreal hours, when minutes are days, and hours are seconds, I finally experimented this energy resurgence that everybody is talking when running an ultra. So far, not doing tachycardia changes a lot of my sensations during the race. I will arrive nevertheless exhausted at the km78 aid station.
The section just before this aid station was already not glamorous, but the next one is awful. We climb now surely but slowly to Cerro Picada peak, running on a 4×4 track, long, straight, with no shadow, for ages. I can see runners in front and very far, but I cannot catch them. This run is only frustration and pain. The perfect moment for Daniela to pass me and make me think that I can use more humility.
I first met Daniela during the last Ultratrail Torres del Paine (UTTP), when I was taking picture at the highest point of the race. She was the last runner, one hour behind the previous one. She arrived at the summit in her flashy clothes and asked me if I could take a picture of her with the surrounding. I often wondered who really these Instagram people are. I had now one example in front of me, taking the pose like a pro, being sure to catch her breath for not showing any belly fat. She finally was DNF on this UTTP, which didn’t prevent her to cross the finish line to get some applause. Anyway, you can picture the girl. And then, she is here, passing me on this final part of the VUT, despite having seen here already in struggle at km15… And me, having no more energy to keep her pace… Story tells she arrived 1h30 before me at the end.
At the end of the climb, I tell myself this race can be done in 20 hours. It is not counting the horror of Cerro Picadas’ descent. The climb was already more than expected, but the descent has no name. The trail goes down, then up and down again, for no reason. It is difficult to stay motivated when marks force you to run no sense. My ambition at the end of it is crushed. It will be now nice to end under 22 hours.
I need now to go down to sea level and follow the beach to reach the finish line. A long descent, some beach and I have my beer. Quite not. During the descent and despite responsive legs, dolour at ankles and knee forces me to run slowly. After this painful episode, volunteers at the last aid station are now telling me they marked the bad trail and it adds five more kilometres. I put back on my headlamp to face this second night and these huge hallucinations. I never experienced hallucinations that strong before. In the forest, I see clowns and acrobats, robots, transformers. I have the feeling to be on a mission to carry cotton for a queen. I need to hurry up, she’s waiting for me. Time to time, lucidity comes back and I am very pleased to have taken a GPS tracking device in my pack. I struggle to keep things clear: I ran 5k with volcanic sand in my shoes and I have now bleeding toes. At some point, marks went down to cross a river, but I saw only a huge guardian made of wood, telling me I couldn’t cross under his watch. It was just a broken wooden bridge.
Finally. Finally, I arrived on this damned beach. Time is 11pm. I am in movement for 23 hours. I can hear now the speaker, and people are telling me that I am almost done. I don’t respond to them. I am not sure they are real. At some point, people are telling me to take care when passing a trunk. I don’t understand why they bother to advice an ultra-runner to take care of something… Mathilde appears just behind the trunk. I think it’s her. Yes, it is, she is running with me to cross the line. I felt nothing. I am not sure what happens. I am just sure I can use a chair and eat these French fries she is bringing to me. I just ended the VUT100K.
Act 5: What’s next ?
The first post-race days, I didn’t have my mind on future project as my body was already struggling with present pain. Now that I recover from the race, I have checked with my cardiologist that heart is now 100% functional. This is a huge victory for me! The race showed me weaknesses I need to work on, such as ankles stability. I am in a great shape and I want to enjoy the next two months to try some FKT projects around Santiago. So, stay tuned.
I want to warmly thank Mathilde for her unconditional support and to help me to keep pushing my limits. Many thanks as well to Liantsoa, for helping to take care of the twins when I am doing stupid things, the cardiologist Enver Hillic for having missed my cardiac issue with arrogance back in 2011, the Chilean cardiologist Christian KARMELIC for having found the right diagnostic, the NPR podcast Ted Radio Hour for fuelling my brain during long running sessions, and finally Powerade to its unpleasant sport drinks but which helped me to end this VUT100K.