The Ultra Trail Du Mont Blanc Race Report
This race report is meant to tell a little tale, share a little strategy and describe some of the practicalities of running the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB - ultratrailmb.com). This is a 168km, 9700m+/- Mountain Ultra Trail run that circumnavigates the Mont Blanc massif through France, Switzerland and Italy. I’ve written an article for the 14th edition of Trail Run Mag (TRM - trailrunmag.com) that goes into more (pompous, verbose) depth and, to be honest, I’ve exhausted most of my creativity writing that. If you want that side of things you’ll have to wait a week or two. I’ve also divided this post into two sections. Firstly, the Guts where I ramble on endlessly. And the Glory, where I talk about results and the practicalities (gear used, food, recommendations etc.). If the virtual sound of my voice bores you, I’d strongly encourage you to skip to the end.
*** THE GUTS ***
I’d wanted to run UTMB from the moment I first stumbled upon it online in 2009. I was Googling European races, as I’d planned on moving over there for a spell, and this one kept coming up. I had no idea of the scope of trail and mountain running in Europe and thought it a quaint (albeit fairly epic) race in the mountains. I really didn’t appreciate that it in a few shorts years (2014 was the 12th running) it had become the unofficial World Cup of trail running.
Fast forward to early 2014 and I’m busy training for UTMF (http://www.ultratrailmtfuji.com/). I got an email from TRM asking if I’d like to represent them at UTMB in exchange for an entry into the race. I’d still have to meet the medical criteria, get enough points to qualify and then pay my way there and back, but I’d be able to skip the lottery (which had already closed for 2014). Shit. How do you turn down an opportunity like that? I’d have 4 months after UTMF to recover, build and taper. Kellie, my better half said she’d crew me and so I said yes. Oh god, here we go!
In May I started a new job that had me overseas a lot and so I took on a coach for the first time ever. Mathieu Dore (http://www.mathieudore.com/), an incredible ultra trail runner himself (3rd fastest time ever on Coast 2 Kosi, sight unseen) was very flexible and realistic with my schedule, programming short, super intense sessions while I was travelling and higher volume weeks while I wasn’t.
I also hit up Factory 3 (factory3crossfit.com), a lifting-focused CrossFit gym in Bayswater North. This was really the first time since 2007 I’d regularly been to a gym and I’m glad I did. I strongly believe this sort of heavy-weight, low-rep work (deadlifts, thrusters, cleans, jerks etc.) mixed into a High Intensity Interval Training workout paid great dividends, particularly with regard my legs’ tolerance of the massive elevation gain and loss in UTMB.
Kel and I flew into Frankfurt, hired a car and drove to Basel before continuing on to Chamonix the next day. Chamonix is like Mecca for trail and mountain runners. It’s a place of pilgrimage and absolutely incredible potential.
The UTMB festival lasts all week and it was buzzing when we arrived. PTL* had started a few days earlier, TDS** started on the day we arrived and OCC*** would start the following day. We checked into our accommodation and both went through registration and gear check (Kel for OCC and me for UTMB) before wandering through the exhibition: think a trade show of trailrunning-related products from brands big and small, as well as a large section dedicated to other races (e.g. Paul Charteris from Tarawera and Tom from TNF100 were there).
After dinner we watched the Xavier Thevenard finish TDS in record time, giving him wins at UTMB, CCC and now TDS. Early to bed, early to rise we drove an hour or so back to Orsieres for the start of OCC. I’m sure Kellie will write a great report on her race so I won’t steal her thunder here. From my perspective, it was great to recce the course and see how the Euros run (and run things).
On one hand checkpoints were very well controlled (if not well managed) and aid stations were divided into sections for spectators, crew only, runners only and where a one designated crewmember (upon scanning a unique barcode) could give aid to a Runner. Aid station flow was generally ok, though it did seem a bit congested from both the perspective of the crew and from that of the runner.
Timing on the other hand was brilliant, with runners wearing two timing chips (one attached to their pack, another to their race bib), automatically updated a website and posted a status to Facebook as a runner passed through a checkpoint. Admittedly this stuffed up for Kellie who somehow managed to get timing updates posted to her Facebook page for another runner, in a different race, on a different day, however it worked fine for us both during our proper races.
That evening I took one of the updated Petzl NAO headlamps (see review in Trail Run Magazine Edition 14) for a run with Seb Chaigneau and a bunch of other press reps. Just an easy jog, it was nice to tick the legs over and get a feel for the lamp that I’d further test during the race.
Come race day I tried unsuccessfully to sleep in, and so spent the day pretending to be calm while the nerves bubbled away inside. We left our accommodation and walked to the start line at about 4:45. I said my goodbyes to Kel and scored a great place about 200 people from the front. The rain started, the gun blared and off we went, 8 fast kms ahead of us before our first climb.
These first few Kms passed through the streets of Chamonix before hitting some trail and climbing a little ways up to the hamlet of Le Houches. From there we hit our first decent climb, gaining some 800m over the next 7km before dropping another 1000m over the 7km after that. From here it was another 9km and 500m gain into Les Contamines, the first Aid Point.
As is pretty common for me in long races, these first 30-35km were horrid. I generally feel sluggish and dejected for the first part of an Ultra and often start to consider withdrawing. Yet in spite of knowing this, I still seem to let myself fall victim to it. A few km out of Les Contamines, as we started our next big climb, I started to feel strong. Either that or those around me started to fade, as I passed quite a few people going up this climb. At one point I looked back down the valley to see a snake of head torches tailing off into the distance. Quite beautiful and well worth the time it took to stop and appreciate it.
I stopped for a few minutes at the next aid station and stood by a fire trying to dry my wind jacket. It was too hot to put my rain jacket on but I didn’t want to freeze by putting on a wet top. I continued to climb and descend, consistently gaining places through the night. I was overtaking people going both up and down hill and this acted as positive reinforcement of my good mood. At around 2am I started to feel the drowsiness creeping in and so took the necessary steps: A couple of Caffeine tabs (specifically, Turbovite) and pulled out the iPod. I very rarely run with music, but Muse, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, Propagandhi and Coheed & Cambria had never sounded so good!
Running through the night I came into Italy with a Romanian guy called Cosmo who I’d run with for a few hours. We hit a nice technical downhill switch-back section that spat us out in the streets of Courmayer, only a few cobbled blocks away from the 2nd Aid Station. It was great to see Kel again, both of us having survived the night in good spirits. She told me I was probably only 10 or 15 minutes behind Shona Stephenson and Toby Wiadrowski, which surprised me no end given their calibre. I changed socks and shoes (from a size 42 to a 43 pair of #VIVOBAREFOOT #Trailfreak to accommodate for swelling feet), ripping the soaking wet tape off my feet and replacing it with Sweet Cheeks Butt Butter (available soon at thir.com.au).
Running out of the CP (at about 77km) the first hill reminded me I needed my poles… that I’d left at the aid station. DAMN IT! I called Kel and turned around, running back to meet her about 150m out of the CP. No harm done, what’s an extra km between friends? The ascent to Refuge Bertone started by ascending through the streets of Courmayer, a gorgeous town surrounded by grassy meadows and insane mountains, and then smashed 600m straight up some pretty hefty switchbacks. I got chatting to a guy all decked out in Compressport gear who, as it turned out, was Mr Compressport himself.
From Bertone down to Refuge Bonatti and on to Arnuva was undulating without any massive climbs or descents. I traded places back and forth with a number of runners to the point where it became funny. I’d pass them on the descents; they’d pass me on the flats. I ended up running with a guy called Jean-Phillipe. He was also there on a press entry as he wrote for the French mag Ultra and, as it turns out, was the translator for the French version of Born to Run. He commented on my VIVOBAREFOOT’s and although he was wearing Salomon Sense said that a more minimalist approach to running (midfoot strike etc.) had saved his running career. Preaching to the converted, no question.
Arnuva was a fairly large Checkpoint given its good road access and position below the Grand Col Ferret. As I was heading out I ran into Tom, the organiser of TNF100, who told me Shona was only just out of sight. It’d take me another few hours to catch her, but it was on! This was a massive climb and it took me a while to recover, not helped my the road section from Fouly ‘til the start of the climb up to Champex, but once I saw the Hare I was determined to run her down and not let her pass me again. I never thought I’d be capable of catching someone of her calibre and doing so gave me a surge of confidence. Coming into Champex I also met Toby’s crew who asked me if I’d seen him. It turns out he’d been sick at Fouly and I’d unwittingly passed him. Unbelievable! I’d trained with him a few times and I’d expected him to be 4 or 5 hours ahead of me by the end.
Leaving Champex I met Dakota Jones who’d withdrawn and we had quick chat. I’d met him at while he was in Australia for the Buffalo Stampede so we wished each other well and went our separate ways. The first few Kms out of Champex were a tease: nice, fast, and gradual down hill. This was followed by perhaps the most horrendous climb of the whole race. Reaching the top I was trash bagged and so stopped for a while to photo bomb a cow. I could see Shona catching up though so I had to run for it. Reaching the 2nd last crewed Aid Station, Trient; she was only a couple of minutes behind and making me work hard for it. I managed to get out of the aid station before her but she was keeping the heat on. There were two other women in sight just in front of us so I expected that would drive her to give it all she had.
Pushing hard I managed to keep in front of her but this probably tipped me over the edge as I spent 20-30 minutes (It’s pretty hard to tell) with my mind playing tricks on me, hallucinating and slapping myself in the face. Part of my mind was booking business lunches, talking about sandwich preferences and other arrangements, while the other part was trying to argue with my consciousness that this was all a ridiculous dream. The dialogue went back and forwards for a while before we reached popped out into the afternoon sun and started down toward Cartogne and from there down some pretty steep trail and into the final crewed aid station, Vallorcine (149.2km).
I was moving well out of Vallorcine, following a small creek up a slight rise for a few km before crossing the road into Chamonix and climbing up a near vertical switchback (or at least it felt that way!) toward Col des Montets. From here all the way to Chamonix via La Tête aux vents and La Flégère was a technical, awkward nightmare. Loose rocks and boulder fields, wet mud, tree roots and the like made for very frustrating running so late in the piece. I also mistook La Tête aux vents for La Flégère so was expecting the final 900m descent 3 or 4km earlier. The last few Kms was a mad dash for Chamonix. I put my poles away for the first time all race and gritted through the pain my quads, running with a yank for the final few Kms before crossing the finish line together.
*** THE GLORY ***
I prepared splits for 29hrs but the first section smashed me. While I didn’t lose ground on the rest of my splits all race, nor was I able to make up much time. I’d also wanted to make the top 100 and so was pretty chuffed with 29:40:59 and 99th place / 57th Category place. Aside from a couple of sleepy, flat moments and a rubbish first 30, I felt solid all race. Recovery has been solid; though the hours spent flying home and then onwards to Timor Leste hasn’t been ideal. Today was my first run since the race and my right calf is pretty tight but otherwise I felt fine. Another couple of weeks of light runs and I should be good to go for the 67km Ultra Trail Torres Del Paine (www.ultratrailtorresdelpaine.com) race and the 100-odd km fast pack of the Northern Torres Circuit a few days before it.
I’d been nursing some arch pain going into the race and was pretty anxious about it given I was going to be running in the new #Vivobarefoot #Trailfreak. An awesome, super comfy pair of trail kicks with absolutely no arch support, I was afraid I might need the crutch of some arch support over such a long distance. Strangely enough, post race the pain is completely gone. Go figure. The shoes held up very well and were ideal for the conditions, light and agile enough without feeling like the terrain would rip them apart.
I started with heavily taped feet and thin Compressport 3D dot Trail Socks in a size 42 pair of ‘Freaks. Most of this was with wet feet so at the 77km mark I swapped up to a size 43 and some thicker Drymax Trail Socks. The taping was a mess so I ripped it off, cleaned my feet and coated them in Sweet Cheeks Butt Butter. By the end of the race my feet were pretty sore but I had no sign of a blister and all toe-nails intact.
Clothing was made up of my trusty Nike Pro Combat tights for Chafe, Compressport Race Ultra Calf Socks, 2XU Cross Sport shorts (because they don’t come with those stupid inbuilt jocks) and gloves, Salomon Fast Wing wind jacket and Bonatti pants, a few THIR bands (thir.com.au) for sweat and head warm, an Inov-8 stormshell 150 and a few other bits and pieces. I used a Salomon S-Lab Hydro 12 set and was absolutely stoked with it’s capacity and fit.
For the first time I used Poles (CAMP USA Xenon 2) and was bloody glad I did. Many thanks to Gretel, Mathieu, Toby, Tayebeh and anyone else who recommended this. I’ve no doubt it saved my legs and by the end of the race I could almost even use the things! I ran with the new version of the Petzl NAO (increased battery life and boosted to 575lumens) for the first night, using two batteries. I was pretty happy with it though I wont be rushing out to replace my AyUp in spite of the weight saving.
Nutrition passed with flying colours so I’ll cover that in some detail. Tailwind (Lemon/Naked early on then Raspberry/Naked later - tailwindnutrition.com.au) was used for 90% of my Calories at a rate of 2.5scoops (250kcal) per/hour. I left each Supported Aid Station with mixed bottles and generally drank all of this before reaching a pre-determined point where I’d mix more (carried in measured Ziploc bags).
In the later stages of the race I found myself drinking less, but still tried to take it all in. Highly concentrated Tailwind tends to give me gas so I consumed about 6 ginger tablets throughout the race and this seemed to counteract it. Interestingly, I accidentally filled one bottle with Tailwind and mineral water and it was awesome!!! Like carbonated softdrink; a great change!
In addition I had 2 x GU Gels (one at an energy low point going up Gran Col Ferret) and another on the final leg when Tailwind was pissing me off. In addition to this I had 4 or 5 Aldi Organic baby food squeeze packs (Pear/Apple or Mango/Banana), 3 or 4 apple puree containers from the checkpoints, 1 x Vespa juice pack, some Bulk Nutrients Recuper8 (http://www.bulknutrients.com.au/) at 3 checkpoints, 1 x Quest bar from GNC and 1 x Overstims Banana/Date bar. I also had a half-dozen super weak cups of Overstims hydration drink, which was supplied at the checkpoints.
Finally, I had original recipe Turbovite at 0200, 0900 and about 1500. This contains about 100mg of caffeine plus ginseng and a spectrum of vitamin Bs. The combination of having had no caffeine for the preceding 5 weeks, plus this stuff in a super simple capsule form was incredibly effective. The 43km after this little cocktail (34-77km) are some of the best Kms I’ve ever had in an Ultra.
UTMB. (Ultra Trail Du Mont Blanc) - Mountain race, with numerous passages in high altitude (>2500m), in difficult weather conditions (night, wind, cold, rain or snow), that needs a very good training, adapted equipment and a real capacity of personal autonomy. 2300 starters, 3 countries, 9.6kms of positive altitude with a maximum of 46 hours to complete it.
*PTL (La Petite Trotte a Leon) - The PTL™ is an "enlarged Tour du Mont Blanc", allowing the route to cross, far from beaten tracks, the massifs surrounding the highest summit of the Alps. This Tour du Mont Blanc takes place on paths sometimes difficult, even non-existent; it includes the crossing of numerous cols (passes) and summits of between 2500 and 3000 metres altitude.
**TDS (Sur les Traces des Ducs de Savoie) - A race in open country along the ‘Grande Randonnée’ paths crossing though the Mont-Blanc, Beaufort, Tarentaise and Aosta valley countryside.
A mountainous event, including numerous sections at altitude (>2,500m), in weather conditions which can be very difficult (night, wind, cold, rain or snow), requiring a very good level of fitness, the appropriate equipment and a real capacity for personal autonomy.
***OCC. (Orsieres – Champex – Chamonix) -The race will start from Orsières located southwest of the canton in the Val d’Entremont. This valley offers unique landscapes: ultimate peaks on the eastern flanks of the Mont Blanc drawing the franco-swiss frontier, hanging glaciers on polished rocks, fiery torrents… The layout of the OCC goes through that nature, in a charming atmosphere before reaching Champex and the last part just as magical at the UTMB® or the CCC®.