A Ring Around Mont Blanc
Words by Katie Grossman – Photography by Katie Grossman and Matt Trappe
This story first appeared in issue #18 of Like the Wind
I handed Dom the small piece of red ribbon, clipped from the signature bracelet they affix to all starters of the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, and asked him to kiss it. I needed him to know we were in this together. I returned a kiss to the ribbon still around his wrist and put the little clipping down my bra, next to my heart. I’m a firm believer in the power of symbols.
See, now any time you’re struggling, you just look down at that bracelet and know I’m with you on this. And I know you can do it.
We’re not usually so dramatic about races. We’ve each raced our fair share of gruelling events with enough highs and lows to know that nothing is life or death in these things. (Metaphorically, of course. Sometimes there’s lightning.) In addition, we’d been travelling through the Alps and had seen enough of the course officially to wipe any competitive aspirations off the table. Dom was honestly going into this with the goal of finishing, but even that was a frightening prospect. While he remained calm and collected throughout the afternoon of the big day, I could see in his eyes that these great mountains had humbled him.
Once we worked through the initial challenges of jet lag and driving the insanely narrow and twisty roads through the Alps, Dom and I were having a truly amazing vacation. We spent hours in the car every morning – free of cell phones and social media and emails. We talked and sang and just enjoyed the silence together. We spent hours hiking and jogging in places we’d never been, exploring new villages and their coffee, beers, chocolate and fromage. So much fromage. We shared amazing traditional dinners with new people. We drunkenly frolicked through the night-time streets of Chamonix; dancing on Mont Blanc at Aguille du Midi, surrounded by ancient, sprawling glaciers and a ton of tourists but feeling like there was nothing else in the world but me and this man I loved so deeply. We got predictably fogged and rained out at Le Gran Col Ferret – which I had researched as one of the most beautiful views along the entire UTMB – yet had a great time splashing around and sprinting the hell off that freezing pass, nonetheless.
As the race approached, I took to the hills on my own to explore. I climbed up a beautiful trail with sweeping views of the Mont Blanc massif across the valley, up exposed and exciting Via Ferratta, up to a place where I should have turned around to be back in time for dinner but couldn’t stop myself, up to a stunning glacier-fed lake, and finally up to a rock where I just kept spinning around, not believing this all could actually exist. I was so happy. For everything. Just a few short years ago, Dom and I were living in separate cities and trying to figure out how to make it all work. Just a bit before that, we were both broke and not understanding if and when it might all click. Now, we had both changed jobs, combined our powers, saved, persevered and here we were in Europe on our own dime.
Dom has always been very affectionate – he credits it to being Italian. But as race day grew increasingly closer, he seemed to grow increasingly loving towards me. Conversations drifted to a Fall filled with celebrating with friends and working on our cabin, rather than the usual time goals and aid-station instructions. I even went so far as to mention to a friend that I feared he was looking a little too forward to the after part of the race and not focusing on the task in hand.
At 6pm on a balmy Friday evening in Chamonix, he took off with 2,900 other UTMB hopefuls for a lap around the big mountain. I stood on a balcony, eating a cheeseburger and drinking a glass of champagne, because that’s love. But then I drank a glass of water and drove to Les Contamines to give him a bunch of PowerBars and some Coca-Cola, because that’s also love.
By Courmayeur the carnage was palpable. These weary souls had been through a full night of mountain-climbing and steep, rocky descending in the dark. Some people were sleeping, some were puking, some even pulled the plug. Before long, my bearded wanderer sauntered into the sports complex. We settled down in a quiet space in the corner, he ate the stuff I brought him and then laid down on the floor to put his feet up for a moment. I sat beside him and stroked his hair as he tried to put into words just how intense everything was out there. I could never fully grasp it, though, because he was so calm and stoic about the whole matter.
After 15 minutes, I demanded he get a move on and marched him outside. He gave me the biggest kiss – holding on to my face for dear life.
We decided to surprise ’ol Dom in La Fouly, since he believed he’d be going another 28 miles without seeing us again. It wasn’t a crewable aid station, but spectating was permitted. Seeing his face light up as he spotted us in the village was worth all the extra windy driving in the world. He looked tired, but resolute, and said the view I had missed up at Le Grand Col Ferret was as spectacular as advertised. I was equal parts proud and jealous.
Dom came into Champex-Lac like a champ, once again beating his predicted arrival. He was still trying to tell me how hard it was on him, but I couldn’t take pity: he looked too good, he was running faster than they thought he should and he wasn’t complaining enough. As in, not at all.
His only request was that I have food for him when he finished, since food establishments in Chamonix might be closed.
Coming into the next aid station, Dom looked like a new man on account of what I can only assume was legit delirium. In all previous aid stations, he’d remained calm and patient – taking his time with a plate of salami and a full Coke, and giving me his best deep Italian eyes in an attempt to communicate his struggle. But here he was en fuego. In, eating and gone in minutes, babbling about how he had to get his finisher’s vest because it would be perfect for drinking pumpkin spice lattes. We had the requisite kiss and I’m-doing-this-for-you nonsense, followed by the continued request that I bring food to the finish, preferably hot and meat-related.
The great thing about Vallorcine was that they had a place where you could buy tickets. And the great thing about those tickets is that they could be redeemed for beer. I no longer had any idea what day it was, what time it was, what country I was in or when, if ever, I had to go home. That called for a celebratory beverage, in my opinion. I wasn’t even through half of it when I realised runners around Dom were beginning to trickle in. He was going to beat the projected splits again, and this time I successfully convinced the aid station controllers to let me in early.
No sooner had I set up than Dom came bounding in. For the last time, he chased a plate of salami and half a PowerBar with a full Coke, as I fought back the urge to puke in my mouth a little. For the last time, I emptied almost all the pockets of his pack and replaced the wrappers with more calories and the bottles with fresh, full ones. For the fifth and final time, I walked him out of the aid station, gave him a huge hug and kiss and told him how much I loved him, how proud I was and how I never doubted for a second he could do this. And for what seemed to be the millionth time, Dom reminded me to make sure there was something hot and involving meat for him to eat at the finish line.
On our way out of town, I suddenly realised that we would be going through Argentiere. My room was in Argentiere and my room came with a shower. All day, Dom had been saying that he couldn’t wait to see me standing at the finish line waiting for him. I’d packed a dress in case we ever found ourselves at a nice event, and in my opinion, the finish line of UTMB was about the nicest place I could possibly imagine. What a surprise it would be for him if I didn’t look and smell like I’d been trapped in a tiny French car for two days. This was Friday night in Chamonix! We’d go out for wine to justify our outfits. I pinned the little red bracelet-clipping over my heart and headed into town.
Standing under the grand archway on Place de l’Eglise, I could hardly believe this was the honest-to-god finish line of an honest-to-god ultra-marathon. At 11pm, it looked more like Wellesley at the Boston Marathon. People lined the street four and five rows deep, cheering and slapping the hands of the victorious runners. The energy was insane; I couldn’t even begin to imagine what it must feel like to experience it all after a tour around Mont Blanc. Actually I couldn’t really imagine anything because my brain was reaching the non-functional state and I was having muscle spasms.
Suddenly, his orange shirt appeared and everything I pictured was becoming a reality. He weaved from side to side of the street, high-fiving the cheering spectators as I fought my way to the front to snap photos. I jumped and waved wildly just to get his attention, still not knowing if he really saw me even when he was across the line and in my arms. Something seemed off. I surmised it was the fact that he had just been running for 29 hours straight, climbing a total of 32,000ft up and down the Alps.
YOU DID IT! I AM SO PROUD OF YOU!
I have to ask you a question, he said, pulling away from my embrace.
Knowing how important it was to him, I informed him that I had a cheeseburger with avocado and bacon waiting for him.
No, I have to ask you a question. No, you don’t understand. I have the cheeseburger. And it has bacon on it. You’ll love it.
As he repeated the statement about the question once again and fumbled with his pack, I suddenly began to understand that maybe something crazy was about to happen. What was he looking for? Why couldn’t we walk away from all the lights? And why the hell wasn’t he more excited about this damn cheeseburger he’d been requesting for the better part of 24 hours?
Oh… I get it. You’re down on one knee. This is happening.
Will you marry me?
He had to ask me four times before I figured out that I was supposed to move my lips and make sounds. I kept covering my eyes, not because I was crying, but because I legit didn’t know what to do with my face. I was so surprised, so happy, so shocked by how un-Dom this was and mostly, so tired. Was this real life?
Well, according to the photos, it was in fact real. Thank God I didn’t have to think about the question for even a second, or it might have gotten super-awkward. Truth is, I committed to Dom a long time ago, official paperwork and the branding of a particular finger aside. And I’d always pictured our engagement being more of a practical transactional deal, on account of him being both an engineer and physically unable to keep a secret.
So the fact that Dom not only bought a ring before our trip, but kept it hidden throughout our travels. Then tucked it in the one pouch in his pack he knew I wouldn’t check and carried it for 105 miles around the Alps. The fact that it was actually a bit heavy and he sacrificed the added weight to his pack. That there were so many people and cameras and general hoopla at the finish line, and it was about the opposite of private. The fact that it was so utterly romantic. And mainly that he didn’t immediately tell me about it when he had the idea.
Yeah, he got me.
The daze of it all followed us to the fountain where he ate half the cheeseburger and to the kerb where we waited for our friend to bring us our car. And as the daze dissipated, we realised there had been a webcam capturing the whole thing. And that a friend back home had screenshotted the moment and broadcast it to our Facebook network.
No, no NO – I can’t let my mom find out on Facebook!
We immediately tried her number. Voicemail. My dad’s. Voicemail. And so a text to call us as soon as possible would have to suffice. They called us soon after, and we launched into a diatribe of how we were sorry they had to find out this way and that we couldn’t control a race that was such a public affair.
Oh honey, I’m just so happy for you!
Yeah, and so I finished and then I got down on one knee and –
It was the sound of a million songbirds, suddenly and horrendously mass murdered. The octave was the highest thing you could possibly hear without going to that place where it’s only detectable by dogs. My mom was completely freaking out. And that’s when we realised she hadn’t checked Facebook and had been congratulating Dom for finishing the race. Again, totally not how I ever imagined telling my parents their oldest child and only daughter was getting married, but totally memorable nonetheless. Sleep-deprived, in the middle of a traffic circle in France, screaming into a dying phone and talking about two entirely different subjects.
Then there were no more cameras, no more lights, no more noise. It was just Dom and I in our little rental car, only I had a rhinestone ring shaped like the head of a panda around my finger and Dom had his pumpkin spice latte vest.
I’m sorry we can’t like… celebrate or something… I’m just so tired.
So am I. I can barely drive this car anymore. Or talk with real words.
Or say yes, apparently.
God, I’m so mad I didn’t think to say “Oui!”
And so Dom and I went directly to bed where we remained for a great number of hours. Before drifting off to sleep, though, he plugged in his phone, which he had been required to carry for his lap around the mountain in case of emergency. He only pulled it out of his pack once, and he needed to show me why. As it buzzed to to signify it had enough battery to be used, he handed it to me.
It was the most beautiful picture of a perfectly sunny day, a green pass completely surrounded by gigantic glaciers. The view I had missed from Le Grand Col Ferret.