UTMB, the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, has a certain pomp and air to it. For those less familiar with the brand, it’s one of the largest trail running races across the globe and the organisation recently partnered to Iron Man with mixed public reaction. Think bigger brand, bigger costs, new sponsors and processes including a new series of ‘by UTMB’ branded events across the world that form the qualifiers for a “World Series”. The final of the world series being the UTMB events in August. Basically it’s changed. For good or for worse, that the Brand will decide. Either way, some 10,000 punters show up for one of the many races of the UTMB:
- UTMB – 171 km (106 Miles)
- TDS – 147km
- CCC – 100km
- OCC – 55km
- MCC – 40km (for locals)
- PTL – a Whopping 300km team event
- YCC – various distances for youth ages
- Les Mini UTMB – for the little ones
- And now the ETC – 15km
I’ve been very fortunate to have previously completed both the CCC and the TDS. Now, after completing Val d Aran by UTMB through which I gained a one-off guaranteed entry to UTMB, I find myself towing the start line at the main event, the 100m ‘Series Final’ that is UTMB.
Running 100miles in the mountains takes a long time for mere mortals like me. Over this time you think of so many things and also decide to explicitly not think of so many things too. I’ve recapped and recalled long races before and I find it’s often as exhausting as the race itself. So I decided I’m not going to put myself through that pain and recap mile by mile of my UTMB experience. Instead, what follows is a dump of thoughts and recollections with a shorter summary of the event. The 45 hours of running will mostly stay between me, Paul and Matt.
I mentioned that somewhere in the region of 10,000 punters show up for the UTMB races. Granted this is staggered over a week with the PTL beginning the proceedings and closing it along with UTMB on the final Sunday in August, but, add in family and friends along with the usual number of tourists and the small towns the races pass through are bursting at the seems. Chamonix in particular is very, very busy during race week (and leading up to it). If you don’t like crowds and the pomp then you probably won’t like this event!
On the plus side, big crowds add to the atmosphere and vibes. Watching finishers of other races and supporting runners from all over the world is incredible. Watching the true greats of the sport ‘competing’ with people like me is fascinating and exciting. Although I imagine it is less exciting for the pros as they get mobbed in the streets and have to partake in all manner of commercial appearances before and after the races. The towns really are a little mental during this time. On our race, hitting Les Houches in the early evening on Friday, and Saint-Gervais a few hours later was a crazy experience. Saint-Gervais in particular was pumping with loud music and people lining the streets cheering and supporting runners for hours on end.
Finishing early afternoon on Sunday was quite a surreal experience too. The last of the finishers would be just an hour behind us and the crowds had gathered ready to cheer them home. So we benefitted from a great finish line atmosphere with thousands of people in the streets cheering and clapping runners across the line (you run a good km through the town, past all the pubs and restaurants, to get to the finish line). Having experienced an early Saturday am finish on the CCC and a midweek, midday, finish on the TDS, this UTMB finish really was on another level. As a participant in the ‘main event’ you really are put on a pedestal and cheered like nothing else I’ve experienced.
The UTMB takes in three countries as you loop around Mont Blanc from France, into Italy, crossing into Switzerland before reaching back into France and approaching Chamonix from the other direction. The route is 106miles, covers 10,400m of vertical gain (and also descent!) and crosses through a number of major towns including Chamonix, Courmayeur and Champex Lac. With 15 major aid stations and many more checkpoints/timing points along the way. It’s a military operation. And that’s just one of the races!
The Alpine trails are stunning. For much of UTMB the trails are very, very runnable. There are, inevitably, some rocky sections and some of the climbs are tough. But on the whole the trails aren’t technical on the UTMB (unlike it’s sister the TDS, which takes in some more technical routes from Courmayeur back to Chamonix) nor the climbs/descents too long. In my experience, the terrain alone makes it a very straight forward route and one which shouldn’t be feared. Combining with the distance and elevation though makes for a far tougher beast and it is fair to say I underestimated just how hard this course is.
There are many climbs and summits and at a few points, including the Col de la Seigne (where you cross from France to Italy) and also Grand Col Ferret (where you cross from Italy to Switzerland) you reach an altitude of >2500m. You’re high up in the Alps. The mountains don’t care about us humans, we are just visitors riding our luck at anytime. The weather will turn and the mountains will serve you your ass on a plate if you’re not ready. There is extensive mandatory kit for the races (and in the exception of ‘cold’ weather or ‘hot’ weather there are also additional mandatory kit lists that can be activated the day before the race begins). For us, in 2022, it was thankfully just the normal kit list that was activated. Although, for the first time in my UTMB experience the Organisers didn’t check everyone’s kit on registration. There were subsequent kit checks during the race though.
The 106 miles of the route is a long way. I thought about this alot over the 40 hours. It is the 4th time I’ve run 100miles and I’m beginning to accept what a challenge it actually is. As time ticked by we carried on flirting with cut offs. We were never in danger of being ‘timed-out’ but I was very aware that time could easily be against us at any point. I also wondered how it was so comparable (time wise) to Val D’Aran which felt far harder with more technical terrain and bigger climbs. Truth is, it’s because 100 miles really is a long way. It will take a while to cover on foot regardless of where you are. And so it did take a while for us to cover on foot, we can’t escape that. 100miles in the Alps is also, unsurprisingly, not comparable to 100miles in the UK (although only one of my four 100 mile runs have been in the UK!). I should have already known that 100 miles is a long way. After completing UTMB I think I finally accept that it is!
We expected rain and bad weather as, in the lead up to the event, the forecasts had predicted rain and some light storms throughout, we were preparing for a soggy two days. Come the day before, these forecasts had changed and it was looking increasingly likely that we’d have a dry run. I can’t explain how much this would have helped. Thankfully that is how it stayed and, other than some light rain at the start whilst we waited to begin, we avoided all bad weather across the course. If anything, it was a little hot during the day time and on some of the climbs where shade was limited! We were very fortunate.
Together we were stronger. Matt said after the race that there were points he wondered if he’d enjoy it more alone. I already know the answer to that. I wouldn’t have. I enjoy the company and the distraction from the task. All three of us started together and finished together. That’s a wonderful thing. Over 45 hours we never left each other’s sides. We could have. Mostly Matt could have left me and Paul behind (like we’d left him at Eiger), but he didn’t. Early in the first night Paul went through a tough number of hours of nausea and sickness. He struggled through it and came out the other side (picking up in Italy!). From Courmayeur onwards I moaned about my ankle/leg and could barely run. This slowed us down a lot! Courmayeur is roughly the halfway point and the guys could have left me many times but didn’t. I’m thankful for them sticking it out with me and sacrificing a quicker finish time to help me through. Again, without them I’m not sure whether I would have succumb to the darker thoughts that taunted me over the last 24 hours.
Leaving Chamonix was mental and the first 8km to Les Houches flew by, as did the first climb over Le Delevret to Saint-Gervais with the sun setting just as we came close to the end of the downhill. The town was one giant party. It was full on and very noisy. It was great and the atomosphere was a talking point amongst runners. For me, the first night was mostly enjoyable. After a flying visit through Les Contamines we were running through the Hoka ‘light show’. The sponsors had errected a big tunnel of light and covered the surrounding area in further lights. It was a bit odd and very cheesy. But it was different and for as few moments the night was alive. We ran through the darkness, over La Balme and Col du Bonhomme (where we unfortunately witnesses someone being airlifted from the course) and descended into Les Chapieux at around 50km in the early hours of the morning. It was a long climb from here which, despite feeling my ankles hurting I rather enjoyed as we reached the Col de la Seigne into Italy just in time for sunrise. The sunrise was beautiful. We stopped for a moment and enjoyed the subsequent climb to Pyramides Calcaires which was rather rocky and more technical than the previous 60km we’d run. There was a long descent into the morning to the next major aid station that was Lac Combal. However, things were starting to become far less enjoyable by now.
After enduring a difficult night, Paul was back to his ‘normal’ self as the day began brightening up and generally we were all running well. We had one plan which was to get to Courmayeur without being screwed up! If we could reach halfway with our quads and ankles intact we were all confident for the second half of the course (which follows pretty much the CCC route which we’d all previously completed). So far everything was going to OK but the plan started to unravel slightly as the morning heated up and we began the steep descent into Courmayeur. The steep and dusty trails were hard work and my left ankle was now constantly in Pain. My form had gone out of the window and I was lumbering downhill whichever way I could. The dust the runners were kicking up was unavoidable and we all arrived into the halfway point with dry and dusty throats.
Out of Courmayeur we began the CCC route albeit with a different climb to Refuge Bertone. Rather than the longer route via Tete de la Tronche we went the more direct way, pretty much straight up. It was tough in the heat as we slowly climbed through the forests. By now there was a lot of pain in my left ankle/shin. I was struggling to run but knew I wanted to keep going, it wasn’t even a question I would entertain, I was finishing this race. From Bertone we ran the ‘balcon’ to Refuge Bonatti and again further on to Arnouvaz from where we would begin the climb up to Grand Col Ferret (aka ‘Grand Colin Farrel’). I recalled this section and that it was stunning and enjoyable. It still was, although I wasn’t able to ‘run’ too much. We were also starting to tire at this point and took a moment at Bonatti to lay in the sun and close our eyes for a few mins (being woken by ants biting us!). The climb to Col Ferret was easy going and this was the first time (on my third visit) where I could see the Col clearly. It was visible towards the end of the climb with the wind quickly blowing the clouds away before they could settle.
Now in Switzerland, it was a long downhill to La Fouly. I knew it would hurt. And it did hurt. I was struggling badly now. Climbing was ok, and I knew I could cover ground at a faster than our average pace when going uphill, but the descents were too much for me. Paul and Matt encouraged me when they could but I was starting accept though that I simply could not move any faster, physically it was beyond me. It wasn’t just the pain, but the range of motion I had in my left ankle/foot was now very limited and I couldn’t push off my left foot. I was already thinking about the three big descents still to come later in the race and I couldn’t believe we still had 60km+ to run and so I was a little bit deflated. We’d agreed we’d try and sleep at Champex-Lac for 20 mins so the initial goal was to get through La Fouly and cover the 14km to Champex-Lac. The slog there was very slow (yep, because of me). I remembered I liked this section on the CCC as we ran through the forests and mountain tracks to Praz de Fort, which I really liked, and also the climb to Champex-Lac through Sentier des Champignons with all the wood carvings. Paul didn’t enjoy it so much but we were all decent fast-hikers so, despite my inability to run, we we still covering the ground at an acceptable pace and eventually reached the aid station with plenty of time for the planned sleep.
We dived dived straight into the sleeping tents. Selfishly I found one and went to work. As soon as I laid down I was shivering. I couldn’t stop it. I should probably have changed into dry clothes first but was so tired I could only think of maximising the sleeping time! Once awake, but very spaced out, Lisa, Martin and Mike went to work fixing us up and sending us back into the night. First up it was the monster climb to Refuge Bovine and we summited deep into the night. Struggling down the descent to Trient (passing through the shithouse party stop that is a barn at La Giete) we then reached Trient just as day was breaking. Mike was there again and over saw another 10 minute power snooze. With the morning chill on our side we powered up the climb to Les Tseppes. We then lost a lot of ground on the ‘nice’ downhill to Vallorcine. We were feeling it now, I was broken and in constant pain and Paul was feeling his quads due to all the downhills. Matt seemed absolutely fine. We were in a good place though knowing that we finally had one ‘climb’ and one ‘descent’ left to conquer. We didn’t stick around too long at Vallorcine and began the climb to La Tete Aux Vents in the midday heat. It was of course a bastard. A rocky climb with no shade and a rocky traverse over to the checkpoint. It wasn’t easy. But I was more worried of the final descent from La Flegere. A whopping 800m downhill to go back to the finish line in Chamonix. The traverse to La Flegere was frustrating and the downhill excruciating. Somehow though we were moving quick enough to be passing more people than whom overtook us. Jana, Paul, Jess and Mikkel came to meet us near Chalet De La Floria and to support us for the last few kms. And then it was the ‘km’ run around the town. The crowds. The cheers. The elation. We’d done it. It happened. We were UTMB finishers.
I’ve saved it till last, but most importantly, this race was all about the people. Firstly Me, Paul and Matt. We were running it. It was for us, by us. We all had our different reasons and motives for being there and the race meant different things to each of us. We’d all worked hard to qualify and prepare ourselves to be at the start line. So it was our race. We were doing it our way. We’d discussed various potential finish times, but these were scrapped pretty much as soon as we started. We were all of the same mindset though and we had one simply mantra we shared from the “it’s happening”. Nothing was going to stop it from happening that’s what we said going into it. It came up several times during the two days and in the final minutes the mantra shifted tense to “It Happened”.
Then there’s the crew. Unexpected, but absolutely essential and critical to us completing the race. Matt’s family – Dad Mike, wife Lara and son George along with Lisa and Martin were on crewing duties. Not always arranged or planned but they were popping up everywhere when we needed them most. They were all dotted along different places at the start in Chamonix and at the first checkpoint in Les Houche. Lara and Mike went to Courmayeur (80km in). Lisa and Martin showed up in Champex-Lac (120km in) with Mike and again on the last climb to La Flegere. Mike also made his way to Trient in the middle of the second night (and had to be sent home to get some sleep and ordered not to show up in Vallorcine too!). Of course they were all then at the finish line to see us finish.
Crewing is a crazy tough ask. The amount of travel, stress, lack of sleep and general thankless nature of following a smelly miserable runner around a race for hours on end is exhausting. Never mind doing it across three different countries! But without them, the outcome of the race would have been very different. From tending to our needs, making us eat, encouraging us, timing our sleeps (and in my case Mike stopping me from pouring coke on myself as I slept!), to giving us extra food and supplies, and so much more. All these things altered the outcome of our race for the better. We couldn’t have done it without them all. This really was a team effort. Whilst three of us ran, a team of us worked tirelessly to achieve the goal. I can’t thank them all enough.
Then there’s everyone else who was out in Chamonix, racing or supporting, who popped up to cheer somewhere along the way from the start line all the way through to the finish. And also all those who contacted us and sent messages of support. These acts of generosity and kindness meant so much to us and helped lift our spirits more than we could express. Big thanks to Jana, Jess, Paul and Mikkel who ran out to see us on the last descent and to all of Paul and Lisa’s family and friends spread across the world who were actively following and messaging us (we’d all spent a weekend together two weeks prior at Paul and Lisa’s wedding!).
- Starting UTMB near the back was a bit shitty. It was a slow start and we had bottlenecks on pretty much all the climbs and descents. We did what we could though, embracing the crowds and using them to our advantage to keep our pace slow and steady.
- The Finish line time of day vibe is key for UTMB events. There’s very little after race love and attention at UTMB. It’s all about those few minutes as you run through the town and up the finish line. Time it wrong and finish too early and it’s a lonely, anti-climatic finish.
- Chasing cut offs is not fun. It’s stressful. We weren’t as tight as last year during the VDA but I was constantly aware and calling them out, running the numbers and doing the math, re-evaluating are progress. It saps away at your spirit and makes you feel like you can’t do it.
- Matt is the king of the power nap. Ten mins at a time and he’s refreshed. Me and Paul need to work on it.
- The drop out rate as always is huge. 800 runners started but didn’t finish. For us it was perfect conditions. But there are so many reasons that could change that for each individual.
- The aftermath – I talked about the pain I was in during the race. One week later and I still cannot walk. The swelling has subsided and the X-rays were clear (no break) but the diagnosis is still pending. Until then I’m in a support boot and still in pain. This time I’ve done something serious to my body. Right now I’d say it was worth it, but I can’t quite understand how I managed to keep going until the end!
- The course record was smashed and for the first time the winner went under 20 hours. So did the second place finisher this year. To put that into perspective, there was a longer time between the first finisher and us finishing, than the time taken for the winner to complete the race. I can’t understand how they can cover the distance so quickly!
- For perspective, Matt ran the whole race in brand new kit after his luggage was lost on route and didn’t turn up in time. How he didn’t stress and lose the plot I do not know. Most of us runners are meticulous in our planning and preparation, but Matt just accepted it for what it was and went with it. He’s such a calm and level-headed guy!