The Essence of Ultrarunning

American trail runners Yassine Diboun and Joe McConaughy shared moments of struggle, support and silliness deep in the heart of the Alps

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By Brian Metzler
When it comes to trail running, Yassine Diboun has just about experienced everything. Similarly, there isn’t much that Joe McConaughy hasn’t seen or done out on the trail.
Both are accomplished trail runners, but they’re known for different things. Diboun, a 41-year-old personal trainer from Portland, Oregon, is known as a top-tier ultra-distance racer who’s racked up dozens of top-10 finishes and numerous podium spots at key races throughout the American West. He also helped the U.S. win a silver medal at the 2015 IAU World Trail Championships in Annecy, France.
The 28-year-old McConaughy, who lives in Boston, meanwhile, has made a name for himself as a long-distance trail runner who’s set records, or Fastest Known Times (FKTs), on the Pacific Crest Trail and Appalachian Trail. He’s also an accomplished ultra-distance racer, even though his race resume isn’t quite as lengthy as Diboun’s.


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.

Originally a second-tier race to the extremely competitive and very popular 171K Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc race that does a complete loop from Chamonix to Courmayeur to Champex and back to Chamonix. But as the UTMB race got harder and harder to get into, the CCC quickly became more competitive. Some runners ran the CCC as a consolation, while others used it as a stepping stone event for a future UTMB. Still others just want to experience the grandeur of racing through one of the most spectacular mountain ranges in the world.The two had met several years ago at trail-running film festival event in Boston and have remained friends ever since. Their race goals were decidedly different—Joe was hoping to run sub-12 hours and finish among the top 20 runners, while Yassine was more interested in running consistently and enjoying the journey—but they were happy to spend a few calm moments before the race among the frenzy of runners, spectators and media chattering in a half dozen different languages around them.


“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.

Photo by Columbia
Italy: The Start of the CCC is one of the most exciting—and challenging—in the world of trail running. If it weren’t for the fact that the start of the UTMB race later that same day across the mountain range in Chamonix is one of the ultimate starting scenes in the entire endurance sports world, the scene in Courmayeur would certainly get more play on social media.
The tension and excitement in the moments before the CCC gets underway are tempered with the idea that more than 1,500 runners will soon be running straight up a mountain. From the moment the starting gun sounds, runners cruise for about a mile through the well-manicured town before heading up a steep, twisty-turning road that eventually becomes a dirt trail that gets increasingly steeper.


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.

Photo by Columbia
Knowing the course and wanting to get ahead of the bottleneck, Joe took it out harder than he did the previous year. He was 10 minutes faster at the first checkpoint at Refuge Bertone mountain hut, but 50 places deeper into the field.“It’s a grind, for sure,” Joe says. “There are a lot of runners and I felt a little bit of pressure to get out hard, but I was feeling good about running my own race. I probably ran more of the climb than I should have, but I felt good about it.”


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.”

Photo by Columbia
Switzerland: The GrindMeanwhile, Joe was cruising on his way up and over the Grand Col Ferret, the second of five massive climbs on the CCC course, a mountain pass that sends runners into Switzerland. The crazy thing about ultrarunning is that sometimes you can’t predict when good moments will turn into bad ones.
Sometimes it’s fatigue. Sometimes it’s how your body reacts to the terrain or something you ate. There’s usually plenty of time to recover, but you have to enact your problem-solving skills and stay positive.

Joe climbed well up the 8,169-foot pass, which lies just a few miles south of a joint border of Italy, France and Switzerland. But once on top, he slowed to a walk and suddenly felt ill; a weak stomach is one of his few weaknesses.“Going downhill just felt terrible,” Joe says. “I walked about a half mile downhill and then I vomited. And vomiting four hours into an ultra, any ultra, is never a good thing. And then I was having some leg cramps, too. At that point, I knew it was going to be a long journey.”


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.”

Photo by Columbia
By the time he walked into the aid station at Champex Lac, his legs were weak, his stomach ached, he was pale and his lips were blue. At that point, he knew his primary race goals were out the window and he really had to focus on staying healthy enough just to struggle through to the finish line.“The moment I saw my wife, she said, ‘You look horrendous,’ and that’s exactly how I felt,” Joe says. “I knew it was going to be a long day and night ahead of me.”


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.

Photo by Columbia
“I felt great and knew I was moving up, but I was surprised that I was that close to Joe,” Yassine recalls. “From what she told me, it sounded like his stomach was giving him trouble and was a bit dead in the water. And that’s the fine line we dance sometimes in ultrarunning. Sometimes we feel great and sometimes, for reasons we just can’t control, we feel horrible.”And, perhaps not so ironically, when Yassine left Champex Lac, he suddenly started to feel the effects the midday heat. As he made his way around the town’s iconic lake, he could only muster a survival shuffle. With about 30 miles and three massive climbs remaining ahead of him, he knew he had his work cut out for him and his spirits started to sag.

Other runners, rejuvenated from the aid station, were passing him as the course headed off on a trail that would lead to another massive climb.And that’s when Yassine spotted Joe just up the trail a few hundred yards.


“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.”

Photo by Columbia
France: On to the FinishThey refueled at the aid station in Trient and tackled the fourth climb over Les Tseppes, across the French border and down a big descent into Vallorcine. At one point, Joe was climbing really well and dragging Yassine up the hills, while Yassine was descending really well and leading Joe down the hills. 

“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.

Photo by Columbia
The first mile hiking up the climb took them 56 minutes and included stops every 50 meters or so. With his heart racing from the caffeine shot, Yassine suddenly felt sick, was sweating profusely and getting a tingling feeling in his hands. He was trying not to throw up, even though Joe was encouraging him to make himself sick because he knew it would make him feel better.“I didn’t know what was wrong,” Yassine says. “It got to the point that I had to lie down for a second in the bushes with my hands over my face to keep the lights of the headlamps from shining in my eyes.”


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.

Photo by Columbia
“It’s bittersweet because you put so much time into training and you really want to live up to your goals and dreams,” Joe says. “And yet it was such a humbling moment and opportunity and I really felt blessed to share a moment like that with Yassine. You don’t get that in most races and actually very few times in life when you’re put in that situation with a person and you come away grateful and forever connected to that person.“It was kind of the essence of ultrarunning. We experienced elation, joy, humility, suffering, pain and ultimately we to a finish line.”

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