“It is not a pristine mountain experience, but rather, it’s a spectacle of the sport of mountain ultra running. I happen to like this aspect of the race. For a sport that is often niche and very grassroots and an activity that I spent a vast majority of my time doing alone, almost everything about the race is an over-the top, at times kitschy, experience; a true celebratory event.” — Adam Campbell
While it’s always fun and beneficial to write a report after every event I run, doing so for the UTMB seems just as daunting as finishing the course. It’s definitely the hardest ultra marathon I ever ran – 105 miles (168 km) in high mountains, 31000 feet of steep climbing and descending, semi-autonomous mode – it took me over 42 hours, having to stop for 15 to 45 minutes at aid stations to fuel, rest and occasionally take a 15 minutes power nap. It was hard but it was an adventure like no other and also a dream come true: running around the Mont-Blanc!
I finished 1039 out of 2469 participants (only 223 Women). 1686 runners finished (68% of participants).
I got to the start line very rested and well nourished after almost a week in a super cozy hotel near Chamonix and daily visits to the center. If you go run the UTMB and have a tight budget I highly recommend the Hotel Beau Soleil in Le Lavancher. It’s operated by Mr and Mme Bossonney and they were so caring and happy to have a UTMB runner that they treated me like their son, cooking simple and delicious dinners that contributed to being well fed at the start. I also slept extremely well, between 8 and 10 hours a night before the race.
The start was at 16:30 on Friday August 30. I’m not used to starts late in the day. I slept until 09:00 and I took the bus at 13:45 all packed and ready and not too nervous. The weather forecast was the stuff dreams are made of: not one cloud! Considering how bad the weather had been for the UTMB in previous years this was truly a blessing already. I left my dropbag at the gymnasium first. It would wait for me almost midway on the course in Courmayeur, Italy. It contained: change of clothes for cold and warm weather, food for the second half, another pair of shoes (I run with the S-Lab but the bag contained a pair of XA ultra WP in case the terrain would be slippery and wet or if I felt I needed more cushioning – I ended up running with the S-Lab Ultra all the way).
I got to the start area by 15:00 to visit the stand of Frères des Hommes, the non-profit I was supporting in association with the race. Great people and it was nice to spend a moment with them and take pictures. Then in order to escape the noise of the start area I went in the nice little church that is just behind the start to meditate. Someone always plays the organ there and I like it better than the circus outside. After sitting for 20 minutes I went for a little walk around the start area and chatted with some runners, some I had met in Cham already earlier in the week. At 16:00 it was time for a Pzizz nap which I took on the grass behind the church. And then it was time to gather for the start… One could feel the intensity mounting in the runners, the crowds and the atmosphere. They were playing Daft Punk “Get Lucky” on the speakers and although I’m not a big fan of this song I looked around and it dawned on me how happy I was to be there, thinking “wow some dreams really do come true”. Every one was so happy too… “Up all night to get lucky…” My eyes welled up and I just enjoyed this very special moment, so happy to be there in Cham with all those people, being ready to go, feeling supported by my family and my friends. I had stayed away all week from the circus but there was no escape there. Beautiful happy moment, shared with so many. “We’ve come too far to give up who we are…” Corny but effective!
Start time (16:30) was getting close and I positioned myself at the complete back of the pack. I didn’t want to get caught up in the rush and burn too much energy early. In retrospect I should have gone to the middle because being at the back was too slow. They started playing Conquest of Paradise by Vangelis, the traditional anthem for the UTMB which signals the start… No matter how corny I think tunes like this are I couldn’t help get caught in the gladiator brave warriors vibe it creates. First we had to walk through the street out of Cham but we were running very soon and it was fun! The crowds are big and very friendly. And they are so nice all along the course. Here’s what Geoff Roes has to say about it:
“…but what was even more amazing to me were all the people out in the more remote areas of the course. This is a very social event in the small villages here. There are stretches where you run through neighbourhoods and almost every home has people sitting on the front steps or up in the balconies and they are all cheering with genuine enthusiasm. In the U.S. it seems like many people would be annoyed by the clamour and disruption of having 2,300 runners race past their front door. Here though it seems like these people have such a deep and genuine respect/regard for all the racers.”
The start of the race up until Les Houches is pretty flat, some road running, forest pedestrian paths. There was a lot of runners and the pack didn’t thin out until much much later in the race. It’s a warm up and an approach toward the passes. Climbing to Col de Voza was fun, just like going up a ski resort in summer. Fast forward some nice late afternoon in the freshness of the Alps with welcoming people until the Col du Bonhomme when things got a little more serious. It was time to dress up for night mountain weather and warm up around a fire. I have to admit that however the gear list was annoying (I know what to take in the mountains thank you very much) it’s is necessary to have runners protected against the elements because otherwise it costs money in rescue costs and liability. And people should know. I went over the requirement by adding a ligth silk layer and it was a great idea especially for the second night out.
The descent to St Gervais (21 km – 951 D+) was a blast. I passed so many people because I go so fast on descents – for me it’s close to skiing. I read somewhere that the UTMB is won on descents (not that I was going to win!). It’s not surprising because it’s where a runner can gain speed with a minimal amount of muscular energy expenditure provided they know how to descend. It seems that I’m just really faster than average on descents and slower than average on climbs. Most often I would get passed on the mountain climbing sections and pass runners on the downhills. I started at 2100 ands finished at 1000 and all the spots were gained on downhills. After each descent I would go to the computer that did the ranking and I would see how how spots in gained. This along with seeing that I had a bigger and bigger margin in relation to the cutoff times was a big morale booster.
St Gervais to Contamines was when night fell if I remember correctly – I had eaten some saucisson and cheese in St Gervais and I could tell it wasn’t being processed optimally. Too bad because it’s yummy and very calorific. I should have trained on saucisson and reblochon! I did go back to eat saucisson and alpine cheese by the end of the race but I decided after St Gervais to stick to eating what I had brought with me: organic grain, nut and fruit energy bars (thank you Nature’s Path!), ginsting gels and raspberry Cliff gels. The aid stations were really well stocked with tons of different foods. Because I suspect a slight gluten intolerance I stayed away from bread too. I had soup, bananas, raisins, fig bars, tea. Eventually I only ate half the food reserve I carried so I could have shaved that weight in my pack. The gels were life savers on the trails to have instant calories before a climb.
Run to Notre Dame de la Gorge was easy, pretty much on dirt roads. Still a lot of spectators: “Allez Allez Bravo!” Then a 500 m climb to La Balme (39 km – 2036 D+). I was measuring the climbs in Eiffel Towers. This one was almost two Eiffel Towers!
La Balme was a fun aid station after a reasonable climb. There was a big pit fire to warm up and a check point were they had runners wear all gear before climbing to the Col du Bonhomme (42 km – 2658 D+): long pants, warm hat, storm jacket and gloves. High mountain time! Climb and descent to Les Chapieux were fun. Some runners started to fall apart at the Col du Bonhomme, sitting down or puking maybe because of the altitude (2500 m / 7500 ft – no big deal for me thanks to my training at much higher altitudes in Mammoth).
It was good to arrive at Les Chapieux (49 km – 2823 D+). There was a random gear check there. A little annoying but necessary. We had soup with beans there and I took a 15 mn nap on a bed with a blanket and felt really recharged. And it was the right thing to do because the next climb was the Col de la Seigne (60 km – 3781 D+) – probably the most grueling part of the course for me. I have this video clip I recorded at the top were there was still snow and we were greeted by a little bit of fog – I was spent! It was a long long climb with more participants falling apart. Medics from the top were hiking down to take care of runners and when I passed through there was a medic checking my level of alertness. If you watch the video summary you’ll hear that at that point I’m a little freaked at the effort I just had to produce. I usually don’t say “It was a little hard”.
There was a good downhill to Lake Combal (3781 D+) in Italy after the Seigne Pass. Good to get some speed and let the gravity do the work. The sight at the Combal aid station wasn’t pretty except for the procession of headlights coming down the mountain. People seems really exhausted. I had some food and rested for 15 minutes and was on my way again to another steep climb, the Arête du Mont Favre (68 km – 4249 D+). The sun was rising and it was beautiful there. The trail was winding through a big pasture with cows that were quite curious about us. Then a quick decent to Col Checrouit (a ski resort – 73 km – 4249 D+) and and a REALLY FUN descent toward Courmayeur! I made it to the race center there by 09:00 (two hours ahead of cutoff which i was working to maintain), I picked up my drop bag to change clothes and get new gels and bars. About 30 minutes stop.
This was the start of a beautiful day in the mountains, in the back of the Mont-Blanc. Another climb to Refuge Bertone (82 km – 5065 D+), then on to Refuge Bonati and a speed descent to Arnuva where I fueled and took a 10 minute nap in the medical center among the wounded. I felt pretty lucky to still be in good shape when I saw the blisters, the muscle pains, GI problems that were getting care there. The mountains, the sun, feeling good and happy Saturday day time was paradise. The landscape at the back of the Mont-Blanc is different and drier than on the Chamonix side. It’s much wilder and remote with less villages.
Grand Col Ferret (99 km – 6204 D+) was a long climb but very pleasant because of the views. UTMB climbs are harder in the dark because we don’t see the top, it’s a bit boring. I quickly developed the habit of using my altimeter in the dark to have an idea of where I was on the climb. As well as having an idea of the elevation gain in Eiffel Tower units. After the pass where it was very windy there was a long enjoyable descent into Switzerland to La Fouly (108 km – 6352 D+). Lot of fun at sunset. I ate at La Fouly and carried on to Champex-Lac (122 km – 6907 D+) and was comforted by the idea that the finish was only a marathon away. How little did I know because the distance was a marathon but there was grueling climbing ahead! At Champex I was 4 hours ahead of cutoff so I was confident I would “finish”. For the pack the challenge is to finish, to become a “finisher” (the word they use in French). There is apparently some stigma in having to quit… people cry and have a hard time dealing with it, which I understand considering the investment and sacrifice such an event represents.
I tried to sleep on a cot in the tent at Champex (a PTL runner was leaving) but it smelled so bad that I couldn’t stay very long. The pack had thinned out of bit by the time I left to Bovine but very soon we had assembled in a pack of about 12 runners. The Bovine climb was insane, steep to the point that we were just like bugs crawling on a wall and it was dark so no pretty sights to make it fun. The aid station at the top had been cancelled at the last moment (something to do with the farmer kicking them out at the last minute from what I heard) so we had another 10 km to Trient (139 km – 7802 D+) which is where Krupicka quit. Leaving Trient for Catogne I became disoriented and, although I was with other runners who confirmed we were going in the right direction, I was convinced I was going back to Bovine! I even pulled out my phone and checked my position on the GPS. It took me a while to just admit that it was my mind playing a trick on me. At Catogne (144 km – 8618 D+) there was a nice fire and I warmed up for a little while before descending to Vallorcine (149 km – 8651 D+). This second night out was not as cold as the first one but I was wearing all the gear I had.
At the Vallorcine aid station I took a nap on the floor for 10 minutes. And I started eating saucisson and cheese again! On my way out the sun was rising again and I travelled to Col des Montets with new friends. There was one last surprise (good and bad) on the course: the ascension of the Tête aux Vents (157 km – 9508 D+). Bad because at that point I was so tired of climbs that I just wanted to get it over with – good because the sun rising over the peaks and the Mont-Blanc chain was just breathtaking. By then it was nice to be able to text with my family and get some support that way and knowing that a lot of people had been following my progress online. It really helped to feel so supported.
Last aid station before the finish was La Flégère only 8 km from the finish with just a mad descent that I really enjoyed! Also I couldn’t wait to get to the finish. The finish line experience was rather insipid. It’s funny that people who were walking 10 minutes before feel compelled to run through the finish chute. I was glad to actually pass the line unnoticed, give my chip back, get the coveted finisher jacket and escape the noise! In essence I wanted to preserve the beauty of the adventure and the experience and leave with that rather than the relative annoyance of the Chamonix circus. It’s great that the race week is such a populous fiesta but i just like people and mountains! I went to pick up my drop bag at the gymnasium and I had a nice chat with the amazing volunteers there. I expressed my admiration and appreciation at the wonderful work and organization of the event. It’s a masterfully organized event. Congrats to all involved. My only regret was to have so much night time running and not enough day time in the high mountains. I wonder if it wouldn’t be better to start earlier on the Friday. But then the elite wouldn’t arrive in the early Saturday evening which must be an important and lucrative part of the show. Although I loved the experience I won’t be inclined to run the UTMB again, signing up instead for the PTL to get my fill of alpine adventure (300 km over 5 days!). But maybe I will run the UTMB again…
Right after that my brother and his family arrived! It was great to be able to see family right way. They drive me to my hotel, I took a shower, packed, thanked the hotel owners for the amazing food and cozy room and we were off to La Calèchein CHX for an amazing tartiflette! Then we drove to Lyon. Surprisingly I was up until 10pm and not tired.
So how do I really feel about the experience? What do I really think about this UTMB holy grail of ultrarunning? First of all the UTMB didn’t start in CHX. Part of this exciting journey was the qualifying, getting an entry, training in the Sierra Nevada, and getting to the start. The event itself didn’t disappoint and I had some very special moments of complete mountain bliss, I met fun and interesting people and I got cheered by fellow French people: best crowds ever since I ran the Boston Marathon. In other words it was awesome and epic, pretty much what I wanted. And we had amazing weather. Two nights without sleep was easier than I thought it would be. I didn’t really feel sleepy on the trails. Some runner told me he fell asleep while running. I was yawning sometimes but that was it. For the second night I used caffeine, it probably helped.
The UTMB was exactly what I wanted: nothing less, nothing more. Excellent event organization and supreme weather. The only shadow is that I don’t feel I got enough mountain for a week in CHX! And I was hoping to run more… But that was a complete delusion of mine! I had no real ideas of what the elevation and the climbs were! Maybe that is why I will go back – to enjoy every bit of it.
I’m very satisfied with the way I executed my race plan, making only small mistakes (forgot to pick up sunscreen and eyeglasses from bag in Courmayeur in case I wouldn’t be able to wear contacts, not taking care of a blister on time etc). Key to being able to finish was the rest and food I had during the week prior. And also very important was the support of all my family and friends, before, during and after the event: THANK YOU!
And finally, one might ask, what’s next? First some decent rest and recovery as it’s very important to do it. And then regular races like TNF 50 in December, Miwok 100K and the big event for 2014 will be one of the following: Western States 100, Marathon des Sables, UTMF, Leadville 100, Hardrock 100 or the PTL. If I get in WS100 I might attempt the Grand Slam. But for now I’m staying in France for a while…