Down from this Cloud

Down from this Cloud
Words by Nikki Barnard – Illustration by Kate Sutton

This story first appeared in issue #15 of Like the Wind

From the first day I learned of the existence of the UTMB, the race blew my mind. I was a runner, and I decided, there and then, I wanted in.

Years went by before I accumulated the points required to enter the 170km/10,000m+ legendary Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. I was lucky enough to have my name drawn from the ever-expanding ballot, securing my place in 2015.

Great plans and epic challenges are never straightforward, and I encountered some bumps along the way. Sadly, an injury resulted in my 2015 entry being deferred to the following year. My 2016 effort resulted in a DNF, which was confusing and challenging to accept, but once processed I focused my mind on what I needed to do to succeed. So, 2017 was the year it was going to happen. The fire was in my heart, my focus was sharp and my training was precise – nothing was going to get in the way this time around.

The UTMB tells a different story for every one of the 2,000 runners who toe its start line on the Friday night of one of the busiest, but most incredible weekends in Chamonix. The stories of where they have come from, why they run and what they have done to get here are all compelling. However, for me, it was not my story that fluttered through my mind in the lead-up to the race. Instead, it was the question: “Do I have what it takes?”

Racing means something different to everyone. For me, it’s a measure of will, an opportunity to confront everything that you think you’re made of. It is all part of a process, seeking the difference between believing you can and knowing that you can. In 2017 I was psyched, I was ready, I was open to it all; hands down, there was nothing that I wanted more.

The very nature of the UTMB grants it such enormity. It is all-encompassing – with the hard work (and at times, the sacrifices) you make to get to the start line, there is little room to wonder about what’s in store beyond the finish. I didn’t think or care about what was going to happen after. I was firing on all cylinders, guns blazing, ready to do anything it took, all the way back to Chamonix to cross that finish line – and that was that.

Undoubtedly, running 100 miles wreaks havoc on your body. I expected this, and I was ready for the enforced rest that I knew would be needed to recover. I thought I could handle resting, but it also knocked my psyche for six. This was the part of the UTMB I was not prepared for, the part that is perhaps not often spoken of. I had little idea about how to cope.

Ten days post-UTMB I could barely even bring myself to talk about the experience. I was so muddled by it all, what it meant, what was it all for? – and the question I dreaded the most – what was next?

I have always had a “next”; NB always has a plan. This time I didn’t and I felt incredibly out of sorts. The obvious remedy for that was finding something new to focus on, and fast. You see, I have dreams (some perhaps considered massive and ridiculous), and I have plans, which I had been developing and working towards alongside my UTMB game plan. But now there was room. It was like a vast hole had formed where focused training, an incredibly driven psyche and hours and hours of mountain running used to live. I missed it, and I wanted it back.

So the mission commenced to find something to fill that void – and to drown out the feelings that were flooding in, consuming every last little sparkly part of me. After about 15 minutes online, I found a self-navigated 200-mile race across Scotland during the winter months. I enquired, I worked out the logistics, I talked to a potential crew – this is big, this could be what I need.

I mean, when you write it down, I suppose it’s seemingly apparent what I was doing – desperately searching for something big enough to fill the hole where my UTMB efforts used to be. I guess I was running away (excuse the pun) from the rather large bundle of emotion and confusion finishing the UTMB, and everything I gave it during the lead-up, had created.

I just didn’t have the answers – I could barely grasp the questions, let alone articulate a response. I spoke with friends who assured me there was a corner coming and to get ready because I’d most likely charge out of this and storm my way towards the beginnings of “the next plan” and “big dreams”. This corner was, sadly, still nowhere to be seen.

I suppose that, as with most things in life, it becomes tricky to move on until you’re prepared to reach a conclusion on the matter and go through the motions to accept and understand its value.

It was the race I always wanted, and it was about the journey, no matter how or what. The highs, the lows, the unexpected… I wanted and found it all. Several months on I am still finding meaning from my UTMB experience among the crazy dark magic that is ultra-running.

Now that I’ve taken time to let the dust settle, I have found that corner and cartwheeled around it. I’m on the up again; not by signing up to a 200-mile trot across Scotland out of desperation to feel like myself again, but by appreciating what I’ve just asked of my body and my mind – and taking the time to figure out what that really means to me.

I believe a particular kind of darkness is needed to see the stars at times. UTMB was by far the hardest race I have ever done and I also experienced quite a challenging time afterwards. Was it worth it? Absolutely. I now understand the difference between believing and knowing that I can; I may not have figured it all out just yet, but that’s OK. I see that as well as my sense of achievement in completing the UTMB, there is value in taking time to decide the next steps in life. A time filled with some mega ups and some pretty hefty downs. But that’s life, I guess, and for that – well, hands down, I’m in, for it all.

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