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They were both fit and inspired to be on the starting line of the CCC 100K race on August 30, 2019, in Courmayeur, Italy, with visions of racing in what has become one of the most competitive and challenging races in the world. CCC stands for Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix, the three main villages the course passes through as the race circles Mont Blanc as winds its way through parts of Italy, Switzerland and France in the heart of the Alps.
“We didn’t plan on running the race together, but we did hang out before the race in a coffee shop,” Yassine recalls. “We were drinking espressos, eating croissants and chatting a bit about the course and the weather as we prepped out gear. It was a nice moment to hang out, a calm before the storm of adventure that was ahead of us. It’s always good to share those moments when someone in your community, especially when you’re in another country and everything seems a bit more chaotic.”
After their final sips, they found their way to the elite-wave starting corral. Moments later, they fist bumped and the race was underway.
Soon, it turns into a single-file hiking line as runners head up a massive 4,500-foot climb to Tete de la Tronche, an 8,478-foot perch high above the Aosta Valley. The views from the top of the two-hour climb are amazing, with exceptional panoramas of the south side of Monte Bianco (what the Italians call Mont-Blanc) and the jagged Grandes Jorasses.
Yassine took somewhat the opposite approach, going out what he thought was an easier pace. But both carried on at a decent pace along the rolling section of trails on the way to aid station at Refuge Bonatti near the 20-mile mark. That’s where Yassine came across Keely Henninger, a Portland neighbor and friend, who was having trouble with one of her feet. They ran together for a while, but eventually the disparity in pace on the downhills created a gap.
“It was a nice moment in the race, but she was struggling at that point,” Yassine says. “It’s one of those things that happens when you’re running with someone in a race, where someone is feeling good and the other one isn’t. Eventually, I wished her good luck and went on my way.”
He carried on through an 18-mile flat and downhill section through Switzerland, even though he felt rotten. As he passed through the pastoral villages of La Fouly and Praz Des Fort, he was looking forward to reaching the ski town of Champex Lac, where he would see his wife at the aid station just beyond the halfway point of the race.
“That’s where the wheels started to fall off,” Joe says. “The section after Grand Col Ferret is long and super runnable through those villages and fairly easy terrain but I didn’t feel good at all. Then I had to suffer through the climb to Champex. It’s only about 1,500 feet up, but it’s a steep climb that beats you up.”
Meanwhile, Yassine was his typically jovial self and running pretty well through the early miles in Switzerland. Like Joe, he ran well over Grand Col Ferret but then, unlike Joe, he felt great running through La Fouly and Praz Des Fort and up the climb into Champex Lac.
As he rolled into the aid station to fuel up, he spotted Joe’s wife as she was packing up to leave. She told him that Joe had just left and wasn’t doing great.
“Hey Stringbean,” Yassine yelled energetically. “How ya doin’?!”
Stringbean had been Joe’s trail nickname when he broke the Appalachian Trail, but it stuck in real life among trail runners who knew him well. At the time, Joe was feeling at an all-time low and wondering why he just hadn’t dropped out of the race at Champex. He was in no mood to talk, even if he was happy to see Yassine.
“I told him, I am doing terrible, how are you?” Joe recalls. “And he said, ‘I’m also doing terrible.’ But you know how Yassine is, he’s always bubbly and excited. So I told him, ‘You are not doing terrible like me.’ I reminded him that I had been walking up the hill and he caught me.”
Once he caught up to Joe, Yassine understood how bad he was with one glance. He had sunken eyes, pale skin and somewhat of a blank stare. Truth be told, Yassine felt pretty rotten too. Not only was he starting to cramp up from dehydration, he also started to feel the pain of an injury he thought had healed. They kind of shuffled for a bit together, but then Joe stopped.
“He said, ‘I’m going to throw up,’ and then he sat down on a stump and started violently throwing up,’” Yassine recalled. “He didn’t look or sound good at all. I waited with him for a bit and thought about going on without him, but then I realized I should probably tone things down a bit, too, because I was feeling crampy and kind of beat up. And that’s when it kind of struck me. Here we are middle of the Alps suffering like this because this is what we all love to do, and we both start laughing about our crazy predicament.”
At that point, Yassine suggested it would be best just to work together to get to the finish line.
“I didn’t expect it, but it just seemed like the right thing to do is band together and try to help each other out,” Yassine says. “Sometimes banding together can be help both of you out, rather than trying to gut it out separately.”
Joe was unmoved by the suggestion.
“I told him, ‘Dumb idea! You’re going so much faster and you’re just going to bleed time by hanging with me,’” Joe recalls. “And he said, ‘Nope!’ And I was actually relieved and humbled by that. It’s sort of selfish me for me to want that, but I really, really appreciated that he wanted to work together. Even though he was in a slightly better place than I was, he was struggling too and so why not work together? It was a crazy situation but it made sense.”
Shortly after they grouped up, they found themselves suffering even more. As they approach the third of the race’s five climbs—a hearty 1,000-foot ascent—Joe’s body started to shut down. He was cramping so bad he was forced to walk and encouraged Yassine to just go one without him. They walked for another five minutes and then Joe got lightheaded, sat down and threw up again.
Joe insisted that Yassine continue without him, but Yassine’s quads were cramping on the uphills and the abductor injury he thought had healed months earlier was suddenly causing him a lot of pain on the downhills.
“I said, ‘Yassine, this is the moment you say goodbye, and you abandon me,’” Joe recalls. “But he said let’s do it together and told me to walk behind him. He really gave me a lot of inspiration and helped me get back on my feet.”
They continued to walk and struggle together, reminding each other to sip fluids and trying to keep each other positive. But it was a grind.
And then to make matters worse, Joe got a bad case of hiccups. After hearing him struggle as he tried to drink fluids and just breathe consistently, Yassine stopped him and said, “I know how to get rid of the hiccups!”
He had Joe sit down on a rock and tilt his head back with his mouth open. “I said, ‘OK, I’m going to pour water in your mouth from my bottle, so close your eyes and concentrate. I won’t spill it out you, it will just hit the back of your throat,” Yassine recalls. “And the trick is that he was actually concentrating so hard on receiving the water that his diaphragm completely relaxed, even though I never poured it. That’s how you make hiccups go away!”
Despite the fact that Joe had recently been throwing up and felt as if he was on death’s door, he burst out laughing with Yassine.
That bit of levity might have been just what they needed. Suddenly they felt better and started making good time, even if at a slow ultra-shuffle pace. They covered the next 12 to 15 miles in better spirits, though Joe’s quads occasionally seized with cramps.
“The strangest things can happen during an ultra, but in this one it seemed that nothing was normal,” Joe recalls. “To that point, we were all about surviving.”
“We were the Ying and Yang for the next 10 miles, but we were moving pretty good compared to what we had been,” Yassine says.
They refueled again and stormed out of the Vallorcine aid station as the sun was setting, knowing they were only about 15 miles and one final climb away from the finish line in Chamonix. They were high-fiving and encouraging other runners, entirely spun up and rejuvenated.
But then as it got dark, they could see dozens of bouncing headlamps in the distance going up the Col de Montet, a massive, 2,500-foot climb that would take them high above Chamonix to the final aid station before the descent to the finish. The sight of that climb took the life out of them and they started walking again.
“It was so daunting,” Yassine recalls. “I was devastated by the sight of that climb.”
“He saw that climb and started swearing up a blue streak,” Joe recalls laughing. “He was like “F that!” and “F no!” He just immediately went into a terrible mental place.”
Needless to say, they were back in struggle mode. Desperate for a boost, Yassine pounded a 5-Hour Energy—something he had only taken during really hard races.
Finally, another runner stopped nearby and started violently throwing up. Hearing that was the last straw for Yassine, who then puked robustly for five minutes. And all of that made Joe get sick too.
“That was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Joe recalls “He we are in one of the most beautiful places in the world, it’s 11 p.m. and three people are puking their guts out. We just started laughing, not in sheer bliss but because we realized what a ridiculous world we put ourselves in as ultrarunners.”
Yassine and Joe regrouped and trudged through a high ridge high over Chamonix. They could see the lights of the village below and, much has they had for the previous 30 miles, they talked, laughed and encouraged each other. They kept putting one foot in front of the other, and reached the final aid station at the LaFlegre ski area in good spirits. From there, it was just one final five-mile slog down into Chamonix, where they reached the finish line 17 hours 21 minutes 50 seconds after starting earlier that morning in Courmayeur.