The Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) 2008 was an incredible experience for me. Now that I’ve had enough post-race time for my body & brain to get back to “normal” I’m ready to collect some of my thoughts from the race and blog about it. But, since a blog entry simply can’t conveying the true experience let me start this post by saying that if a ~100 mile run through spectactular scenery is your cup of tea, you should REALLY consider doing this race.
As my previous 2 posts mentioned I was able to come over to Europe for roughly a week prior to the race. The majority of that week was mostly spent in Switzerland, which was spectacular. The group consisted of me, Mindy, Steve and Teresa, which was a great team. We visited Interlaken (and surrounding areas), Zermatt, and Leukerbad, after which we headed to Chamonix Mont-Blanc in France to scope the scene prior to the race.
UTMB flies rather low on the “ultra running” radar to most folks in the U.S.A. Most have heard of it, but few have done it. I assume that the reason is due to the logistics and cost of doing a race in Europe. Both are indeed valid reasons especially now given how weak the US dollar is and how relatively strong the Euro is. Holy cow, it is very expensive right now! I just bought a sandwich (nothing fancy, just a pre-made self-serve sandwich) at the Paris airport and it was about $14. Back to the race….. One thing that this race opened my eyes to was the breadth and depth of talented mountain runners in the world. Many ultra-runners from the states tend to have this idea that we invented the sport of mountain running and that we also dominate it. Not true at all and this race proved it to me. The true beauty of the UTMB is that it is a melting pot that literally brings people from all over the world together, motivated by the common appreciation for beautiful mountains and pushing their physical limits.
First off, the directors of the race should be highly commended. The entire event is extremely well organized, which it has to be in order to accomodate the number of entrants. Three events happen simultaneously: The Petit Trot Leon (PTL), the CCC, and the UTMB. The PTL is the big daddy, multi-day (100 hr cutoff) with 220km (137 mi) and 17,000m (55,774 ft) of vertical gain. I believe that this was the first year for it, they claim it’s not a race, but rather an “event”, and you have to do it in a team of 3 people. You also sleep at huts along the way. I’m not sure what the turnout was like for it, but I don’t think that there was too much interest. The UTMB is 166km (104 mi) long and has 9,400 ft (30,840 ft) of gain and is the most popular race of the three, presumably because it circumnavitates the entire Mont Blanc massif, starts/stops in the same location, and most folks can push through without sleeping as is required with longer races. It is a beautiful loop course, which is always a good goal when designing a course. It also somewhat follows the famous Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB) which is a very popular hiking trail around Mont Blanc. The CCC is the little brother, running from Courmayeur (roughly the mid-point of the UTMB) through Champex and onto to the finish line of the UTMB in Chamonix, covering a bit more than the second half of the UTMB. It is 98km (61 mi) long and has 5600m (18,373 ft) of gain.
Another thing that sets this race apart from 100 milers in the states is the list of “mandatory gear”. At check-in you have to show that you have ample food (although they don’t say how much (I had about 7 PowerGels and it did the trick), tights, a waterproof jacket, 2 headlamps with spare batteries for each, a whistle, an emergency blanket, and a cup to use for drinking at aid stations. I’m a minimalist so naturally this all felt a bit strange. But, in the spirit of fair competition I went about trying to figure out how to carry it all in the most efficient manner possible. I couldn’t figure out how to get it all into my Nathan 2-bottle waist belt, which is what I’ve become accustomed to using for the past few years. So, the day before the race Mindy and I scoured the local shops looking for the perfect small running pack. Switching to anything new right before a big race is a stupid thing to do as it doesn’t much being off to cause serioues issues. I found a pack made by RaidLight, called the “Endurance”. It ended up being sweet and I’m quite excited about having it for future mountain adventures. The pack carried incredibly well, is lightweight, and logically laid out. Also, I was convinced that my shoulders would suffer some chaffage since I hadn’t been running with a pack on, but miraculously I was fine at the end. I wore the trusty La Sportiva Crosslight, which is still my favorite shoe out there.
Another unique piece of gear that most of the runners have is poles or “sticks” as they call them here. I’ve always kind of laughed at them and figured that if you are running, poles will only slow you down. They’re really just for hiking with a pack I thought. However, given the state of my knee from the previous few months I figured I’d buy some just in case. The rules were that if you were going to use poles at any point on the course, you had to carry them for the entire race. Now that I’m done, I can say that I am REALLY glad that I had them. I’m not sure if my knee would have made it through otherwise. That much said, I still feel that the minute you put a pack on of any size, and have poles, it changes your biomechanics and really turns you into more of a hiker than a runner. If/when I do this race again, I will really try to stay as light as possible and hopefully my knee will be in such a condition that I won’t need poles.
And one last comment on poles. By the end of the race I became quite proficient with them. Since the climbs on this race were so incredibly steep, literally >50 grade in places for sustained lengths, the poles really gave you extra climbing power. Then, on the downhills, if I was going less than about 5 miles per hour I could use them to my advantage, anything faster and they were a hinderance. Many of the Europeans I saw using them were quite skilled with them, it almost looked like a really dialed telemark skier, actually quite graceful looking…..
This was a highly anticipated race to the Europeans given the huge field of excellent runners. On the mens side there were a bunch of well known names such as:
Marco Olmo (Italy)
Christophe Jaquerod (Switzerland)
Dawa Sherpa (Nepal)
Vincent Delebarre (France)
Jens Lukas (Germany)
Nicolas Mermoud (France)
Scott Jurek (USA)
…. to name a few …
And, there was also a kid named Kilian Jornet Burgada a 20 year old protegy from Spain. Many were very interested in how he’d perform given that he has destroyed nearly every race he’s ever entered from what I can tell. He had a reputation similar to Kyle Skaggs prior to Hardrock this year.
The women’s field was also stacked with incredible runners:
Kami Semick (USA)
Elisabeth Hawker (GB)
Nikki Kimbal (USA)
The big news of the race was that Kilian crushed the race! Seriously, his time of 20 hrs 56 minutes is on par, or dare I say even more impressive, than Kyle Skaggs 23 hrs 23 minute time at Hardrock this year. The later of which WAS already being talked about as one of the most impressive endurance feats ever… Wow, what a year. For comparison sake I personally think that the UTMB course is every bit as difficult as Hardrock, with the one exception of the average elevation being much lower. Plus UTMB is longer by 4 miles. It actually has some very fast parts (i.e. not too steep) through the villages and cities cities, but the overall vertical gain is still big at 31,000 ft. What this means is that the climbs and descents are steep! The climbs at the end felt brutal to me. Over the years I’ve become well aware of the end-of-race phenomena where lengths, climbs, and descents feel twice as long as they really are, but it was rediculous at UTMB. Honestly, I think that the measuring was incorrect in several sections. Certainly the last section from Flegere to the finish line. I know without a doubt that it was longer than is listed. Did anyone out there GPS it?
UTMB saw a course change this year that made it harder than previous years. Rather than a cruiser 15km back to Chamonix, as was the case last year, the last 15 km was hellacious. Seriously, it was absolute crualty! And this is coming from a guy that generally enjoys good mountain cruelty. After a seemingly never ending climb the trail skirted the side of a mountain on a terrible trail in the sence that it was incredibly rocky and nearly impossible to run at all via headlamp. Perhaps in the daylight it would have been easier. It makes Kerns Mountain at the MMT100 (which quite a few people complain about) or even coming down from Oscar’s Pass on Hardrock in the CCW direction (which I often complain about) seem like decent trails.
That being said, it makes what the front runners of the UTMB did this year even that much more impressive. I am in awe. There’s talk that Kyle Skaggs and Tony Krupicka from the states are planning to head out to UTMB next year. That would be more than cool as I regard them as two of the finest mountain runners around today and it would be neat to have one or both of them perform well. Hell, even a finish would be nice as the USA runners are getting quite a bad repuation for dropping out of this race. Kyle and Tony are tough bastards and I believe they’d slog even if they weren’t leading the pack.
So, after you’re read about the real studs of the race (protegy 20-year old Spaniards, Sherpas from Nepal, etc.), if you’re even remotely interested in reading about how the race went for me, by all means continue reading 🙂
The start in Chamonix is wild. With 2,400 runners, and probably 3-4 times that in support crew and volunteers that’s a lot of people to cram into the tiny streets of Chamonix. An arch marks the starting line and large speakers project motivating music that sounds like it’s straight out of the Hunt for Red October. Announcers shout in multiple languages stuff about the race and the field, highlighting key runners. The intensity finally builds until the official start. Then we’re off! The front runners take off in a sprint and someone like me, who was back a ways, really just tried to not trip on something and get trampled for the first km or so. The first few km through the city was lined with cheering crowds, which was really cool. Wow, the locals really get into and support this event.
The UTMB starts at 6:30 PM, which at the end of August means that within a couple hours you’re in the dark. Odd for a race to start in the evening, but it makes the race unique. Through this experience I realized that I had been conditioned by the U.S.A. 100 milers I’ve done to associate the darkness with not feeling great. In a typical USA mountain 100 miler darkness comes after 16 or 17 hours of running (for me at least) so obviously I should feel knackered. But, at UTMB I had only been going for several hours when darkness set in and I felt like I had been out there for much longer.
The views from the first climb of the race are wonderful. The light is great as the sun begins to set and the view of mont-blanc was awesome. Then the descent into Saint Gervais. Holy cow, everyone around me was going full-throttle down this hill! I tried to call upon my 100 miler wisdom and be reserved, which meant that I was getting passed left and right. Oh well, I didn’t care, I figured that I’d be seeing most of these folks again soon. My knee started to ache a bit, but it just needed to be warmed up and this descent was doing the trick. I didn’t have the sharp pain that I was fearing. Needness to say, pain at this point in the race throws you into a bit of a mental quagmire.
The scene in Saint Gervais was incredible, with thousands of people in the town partying, cheering, playing music, dancing, etc. etc. It was like the tour de France, I felt like a super-star as I ran through the town to the cheers of everyone. Kids lined up and wanted high-5s. In Saint Gervais I got some water, oranges, and loaded up on enough Gels to get me to Courmayeur, which was ~35 miles away. I wouldn’t see my crew until then, which meant that I had a lonely night ahead of me. But, not too lonely as I had the company of the thousands of people running the race. It was so cool, I recall getting to the top of Croix du Bonhomme, the LARGE and LONG climb out of Saint Gervais, and looking back at a line of headlamps that appeared to go on for miles and miles behind me. It was actually quite beautiful. On this climb I ran into Glenn Mackie from the States and it was nice to have a familiar face and voice. One of the first things out of his mouth was, “I still have a lot of Hardrock on my legs.” I completely agreed. He made fun of the fact that I had poles with me, which I fully expected.
The descent down to Les Chapieux was steep and fast. Plenty of racers opted for a “straighter” path than was marked, while I opted to follow the flags. It didn’t matter to me, it maybe bought them a few seconds, but they probably paid for it later with the extra impact to their quads. I just laughed at it, . Everyone was so intense.
The climbs to Col de la Seigne and Arete Mont-Favre were no brainers, I was on auto-pilot. I hurt a lot more than I wanted to, though, which wasn’t too much fun. All past injuries seemed to plague me at the same time. Hip, knee, achilles, and I was cramping up quite a bit. I had to just turn off the brain (not that it does much when it’s on anyways. 🙂 ) and tell myself that it usually takes me about 30 miles or so for my muscles to relax and get in the groove, I had been through this plenty of times…. Eventually I began the descent down into Courmayeur and I was feeling good, although over an hour behind the schedule I had laid out for my crew. The first hint of dawn provided an incredible silouette on the Mont Blanc Massif. I was excited to see Mindy and my parents. I made good time into the Courmayer aid station, ran upstairs to the feeding area and forced some food down, then ran out to see if I could find my crew. I spotted them and somehow they had missed me coming in. I re-entered the aid station and decided to take a quick pitstop in the bathroom. Upon entering the bathroom I immediatly felt sick and ended up throwing up everything that I had just put in my system. damn. I ran back to my crew, packed my stuff and took off. In a situation like this it is essential to re-hydrate as quickly as possible and put calories in your system. Regardless of doing the right things I felt terrible leaving Courmayeur. On the climb up to Refuge Bertone I was so weak, probably had only 20% of my normal energy. I found a side trail, went up it 30 ft or so and laid in the dirt and shivered/slept for probably 10-15 minutes as many runners passed me. I hopped back up on 2 feet and started slogging up the hill with a group of folks. Boy, was I going slow, just felt horrible. Finally I got to Refuge Bertone and had a bit of coke, which gave me a tiny bit of energy. The views were amazing which really cheered me up! I am so ashamed that I didn’t bring a camera for this part as it was perhaps the most beautiful scenery I’ve seen in my life, the south side (Italian side) of Mount Blanc on a perfectly blue-bird day, wow!
A flavor of the scenery on the UTMB. Photo by Jack Jewell.
My body is not so good at regulating temperature when it’s dehydrated & depleted, which comes with purging your system, so fortunately the next part was in the shade, which kept me cool. This part was cruiser, with only small hills and descents. I felt okay, but certainly not the way I wanted to. Finally, the descent to Arnuva, where I put a couple things in my system. I got a bit back, but the climb up to the Grand col Ferrett still kicked my butt. But, again, the scenery overshadowed how I felt and my personal frustrations with how slow I was moving. It was simply too beautiful to complain. When I was heading up the hill a helicopter kept flying by with a video camera mounted on the outside. I assume they’re making a documentary on the race. Not sure I’ll buy it with footage of folks like me slogging up a hill. ha ha ha. I felt good at the the high point on the course (Ferrett) and moved really well down the LONG hill to La Fouly. This was a section that I also felt that the distance was wrong, it HAD to be longer than what is posted.
Finally, La Fouly, I was very happy to hit this aid station as I desparately needed it. It was now the heat of the day and I was still dehydrated so it felt about 15-degrees hotter than ambient temp. I left La Fouly and began the gradual downhill before the climb to Champex. Now, if I had felt good here I would have ripped, but I couldn’t/didn’t. The climb to Champex was a relief from the sun as the climb entered the trees for a while. However, my stomach decided to revolt again and just after I ran past 2 hikers and another racer I threw up black stuff and whatever else was in my stomach in about 5 locations along the trail. The hikers were really confused by my behavior. I had just run by, they said, “c’est bien. Allez, Allez, Allez!”, I replied with a cordial, “merci”, and 5 seconds later I’m throwing up and rolling on the ground, only to wipe off my face and start running again. I can see why they’d be confused. Several minutes later I strolled into the Champex-Lac aid station that I really needed.
My family was concerned because I was pale and didn’t have any spunk about me. The first thing I asked for was the mileage/elevation table. No food, no water, I just wanted to see the mileage table. I stared at it in disbelief because the distances felt so much longer. I finally got some soup and coke down, re-stocked on powergels and took off, only 3 climbs left. woohoo. I got out of there.
The first couple miles out of the aid station COULD be run very quickly, which is then followed by the climb up to Bovine. It was utterly beautiful, which made up for how steep it was and how much longer it felt than the ~700 m of climb that the map showed. Finally I hit the aid station, got a bit of water and took off bound for Trient. It really was beautiful and fun running. Lots of rocks and roots, and quite steep, but a really great singletrack trail for the most part. It just felt really long. Trient was great and I was starting to feel a tiny bit better, only 2 hills left.
The climb up to Catogne began right away. The switchbacks went on FOREVER, but at least the trail was really nice from what I recall. It crested a ridge and wrapped around for a ways to the aid station. I had to turn my headlamp on at this point. Supposedly this aid station was only 3.5 miles from Trient, but I’m calling B.S. on that. Then only 3 miles down to Vallorcine, again B.S. It was getting comical to me how wrong it felt.
I entered Vallorcine aid station and told Mindy that the soup and coke was working well. So, I got a bunch down and left this final station. I didn’t realize that there was a very gradual boring dirt road part before the BIG climb began and I got really tired on it. Hey, I was now in the second night and I wasn’t happy about that. My original plan to was to finish before the second night, which would have been a 26 hour finishing time, at this point I was headed for 31 hrs so not too psyched about that. I also felt bad that my crew was going to end up staying up much longer than they had anticipated. I got to the base of the final climb and sat down in the dirt for 5-10 minutes because I was so drained. Then, I was awoken by a runner who whose light was bouncing towards me. I got up and began the climb. I choked down a powergel, drank some water and then got to work. I actually felt really good on the climb, but I knew it was going to be long. It went on forever, but given that I felt better physically I didn’t mind as much. Finally it crested what felt like a high point and began traversing a hillside still climbing. This traverse was pure evil during the night. Big boulders and very difficult terrain to run. I eventually saw some lights ahead and pressed on having left the person behind me in the dust. I finally hit La Flegere and rested for a bit. I met up with Konstantinos Stamoulis a Greecian runner I had been leap frogging for a good majority of the race. I turned to him and said, “let’s finish this thing my friend”. We left the aid station and immediatly began crusing at a great pace. I felt wonderful, my stomach was good, knees felt okay, didn’t care about my foot pain, mentally was in a great way, had some company, and was on the final stretch. This was good. Konstantinos was also running well and it was fun for us to pull each other. He kept saying, “you go ahead and cross the finish line first, you’ve been ahead of me for most of the race.” But, I told him, “no my friend we’re crossing the finish line together.” This created a cool bond between us and we ran like a team, passing numerous other runners on the final leg to the finish. We were doing between 6-8 mph (estimate). The website results look funny because it doesn’t show time in and time out of aid stations. My time from when I checked into Flegere to when I crossed the finish line was 57 minutes, but this included my time in the aid station, which was probably only 3-4 minutes? The website lists this leg as 7 km (4.3 miles) which simply doesn’t make any sense. I’d believe that it was 6-7 miles, again, anyone GPS?
Konstantinos and I crossed the finish line hand in hand and his 2 little kids also ran with us. It was a great experience. His wife was so happy to see him and it was as if our families were instantly friends. It was so nice to end on a positive note and I really felt great. I ended up finishing 105th place out of ~2,400 starters with a time of 31 hrs 00 minutes. It was far from what I wanted to do, but as always with a race like this was was very happy to just finish.
Mindy and my parents were incredible and I can’t thank them enough for their endless support through the event. Below is a shot (althought kindof blurry) of us crossing the finish line, and also Mindy and I afterwards.
Would I do it again? Had you asked me during the majority of the race when I was feeling terrible I would have told you that I’m done running long races. However, my time-constant for forgetting the terrible times and focusing on the positive aspects of such experiences is about 30 seconds so I’d have to say, “Yes!”. It really was an incredible race and I’d gladly repeat it in the future, hopefully with some more friends from back home.
Hopefully you’ve enjoyed this posting, my getting stuck in the Paris airport is to blame for the length…. 🙂