Ultra Trail Mont Blanc (UTMB) 2013 Race Report by Tom Phillips
10 days after finishing the UTMB the memories are still very vivid, but the order in which some events took place takes a bit of thinking about! The one thing that is clear is the intensity of the experience is as big as the race is long. Reading other reports it is also obvious that athletes at both ends of the spectrum find it tough and experiencemany of the same emotions, the massive dips in energy leading to despondency, often then countered by the exhilarating highs of racing and competing in amazing scenery and what is certainly the number one trail race in the world.
It's a long journey just to get the the start line, with the need to complete arduous qualifying races and then the wait for a successful entry. That process took me nearly two years from first deciding to attempt this ultra running challenge.
The UTMB was first run in 2002, since then it has rapidly grown to something that is on the "tick list" of many long distance runners. Starting and finishing in Chamonix it takes an anti clockwise route around Mont Blanc, pretty much following the walking trail that takes experienced mountain walkers 10 days to complete. The race has a time limit of 46 hours and although you don't need to average much more than 2 miles an hour, there is normally a failure rate of over 50% of those tackling the 105 mile (168km) route with nearly 10,000 metres of ascent (35,000 feet).
Although I love running, climbing and cycling in mountains in the UK and abroad, I had never visited Chamonix before. Arriving on a wet afternoon in late August with several weeks of niggling injuries my spirits were not great! A sore hip, reoccurring ear infections and perhaps general fatigue after two long distance triathlons during the year and arduous support runs on mountain challenges in Scotland the The Lake District during the preceding three weekshad taken their toll.
My mood soon improved however with the eccentric humour of my host for the week - Gerhard Röhrl and his enthusiastic wife and daughter who were along to support him. Waking the next day to dramatic views of Mont Blanc and skies full of parapenters cruising the early morning thermals I started to see why Chamonix was such an iconic venue. Gerhard was doing the race as well, and he had experienced the tough conditions the previous year when the course was shortened into a mere 100km race because of snow and high winds. This year the forecast was looking reasonable, and as race day came closer it was obvious that conditions were going to be pretty much perfect.
For such a simple activity (running) there does seem to be a lot of things to organise and decide on. The main issue is that once you start, if you have forgotten something vital like sun cream, vaseline, plasters, etc and you need them then potentially you are going to have a pretty tough time!
Before starting at 4.30 pm on Friday afternoon you (along with over 4,000 other runners from the last two races of the UTMB week) have to pass a kit check, get your number and timing chips, leave your "drop bag" (spare kit for the half way check point), and of course try and rest and sleep for the test of endurance to come. A reoccurring ear infection was a real worry for me. It had wrecked my last race, and was now threatening this one! I did manage to get out on a "short" 20km recce of the last pat of the race route however, I didn't intend to run that far but the mountain scenery just seduces you!
Fast forward to Friday afternoon and I'm sitting in the sunshine just a few metres from the start line, surrounded by runners from all over the globe. The PA system is booming out music and the commentator is introducing the top runners to the huge crowd compressed into the small streets around the start/finish line. Many of the worlds top trail runners are here, it is a privilege to be in the same race.
10 minutes to go and we are asked to stand up and gradually we move forward and get even more compressed, but soon the waiting is over, and 2,300 runners make their way, walking, then jogging, then running, through the cheering crowds lining the streets. It makes my spine tingle and the assault on the senses is total. This part of the race alone makes all the effort worthwhile.
The first section is pretty easy going and I get chance to chat to a few other runners, an Australian Lady who did her qualifying races in the Blue Mountains near Sidney, then I chat to a French guy who tells me that he has done the UTMB 7 times. "That's amazing" I say. Then he mentions that he has only completed it once. I feel it would be mean to retract my compliment ! Generally though there seems to be very little "banter" unlike UK races I have experienced. The French in particular seem very serious and don't seem to want to engage in any way. Apart from the supporters the only sounds are those of footfall and the tap, tap tap of walking poles which are very popular.
I seemed to have chosen a good starting position as I am not getting overtaken or held up by other runners. More crowds again at Les Houches, including Karin and Caroline who are also looking out for Gerhard of course. I joke with them "It's easy, it's all downhill!" On the first climb there is once again amazing support. People have spilled out of Chalets, perhaps slightly inebriated from an afternoon on the wine, and they are giving it 100% in terms of volume with cow bells and anything else they can make noise with. "Allez Thomas" They take time to spot your name on your race number and make you feel even more special.
Delightful late evening Alpine views are a reward for getting to the top of the first climb, a mere 750 metres of ascent that one. Then its down the the lowest altitude of the whole route, St Gervais at 800 metres. Drum beats echo around the valley and it sounds like a carnival is taking place, and of course it is because the UTMB is coming to town. I don't stop long in the checkpoint (21kms) where there is plenty of food and drink on offer amidst the amazing crowds. I grab some pieces of banana and refill my water bottles. Karin and Caroline are there again to offer encouragement and I tell them again that is all down hill, easy!
Now I was onto a crucial section, the long 23 km climb to Croix du Bonhomme, one of the highest points of the trail. This was very gradual at first and much of it was OK to run or jog. I sped through the next checkpoint at Contamines and by the time dusk came I was onto the steeper part of the climb and heading back out of the lush valleys and into the mountains. I chatted briefly with a group of British runners, one of them (Kevin Perry) was struggling, nothing in his legs he said. He was a good runner as well having come 4th in the UK's Lakeland 100 race in July. Even the best find such challenges tough at times.
I was having a good patch, but I knew it wouldn't last. It is the nature of endurance events that you will have a dip in energy and a very strong urge to stop, well at least I do. I had a brief "conflict" with an over officious marshal at La Balme (39kms) who demanded I put on a waterproof top and full length leg cover, this was very frustrating as I was still pretty warm and also other runners were going past the checkpoint wearing the same as me. "It is very cold" she said so I put on my long sleeve top which was, after my protestations eventually enough to allow me to continue.
The view back down the valley was sensational with a continuous line of torches many kilometers long marking the route I had taken. The way ahead was also marked by torches, but the reflected light of the runners ahead moving away from me was much softer and less clear.
The clear skies meant the temperature had now dropped to just a few degrees, but with almost no wind it was not a problem, and I got the the top of this climb (2443 metres) without too much difficulty. Rocky traversing eventually lead to a smooth grassy run in to the 50km checkpoint at Les Chapieux. Here there was a random kit check and a pretty busy feeding station. This is where I made a big mistake. I was feeling so good I thought I would gain a few places (this place was packed) by grabbing a couple of bits of food and carrying straight on rather than "wasting" time sitting down and eating. It was just before midnight and I had been going for over 7 hours, but I had been feeding quite well on the move and feeling pretty good. The next climb was "only" 1,000 metres, much shorter than the last monster!
A section of road gradually climbing up thenext valley was pretty easy going. But once I hit the climb proper my energy levels soon dropped to rock bottom, despite taking an energy gel I was being overtaken and finding it hard going. I took the decision to just keep going, get over the pass, and perhaps have more to eat at the next checkpoint. This strategy might have worked OK in the UK, but on bigger Alpine climbs and with diminished oxygen levels at such altitudes it nearly bought my race to an end. I started to get dizzy and was at times even staggering off the path, but it didn't look far to the top so once again I just kept going. Another mistake I made was that I wasn't looking at my altimeter to monitor my progress, and getting to what I thought was the high point on this section brought me disappointment as a new line of lights climbing up to the left indicated that I still had quite a way to go. Negative thoughts swirled around my head: I wish I could just quit now, find somewhere to sleep and escaped from this torment. I was cold and weak and close to collapse. Somewhere inside though I knew that I could get through this. If I really thought about it my legs were not really tired. I just needed to re-energise myself. It was dispiriting to have to stand aside to keep letting people past. The lights of the checkpoint at Col de la Seigne on the Italian border were very welcome, although there was no food I sat down, had a gel and put on my waterproof top and gloves. (At least there wasn't a passport check, I might have had a sense of humour failure had there been). A marshall kindly came and sat with me and asked if I was OK, I could see other runners sat inside a transparent safety shelter, I knew I didn't want to succumb to that, so I got back on my feet and stumbled down toward the next checkpoint just a few kms ahead.
Lac Combal checkpoint was an outdoor feed station, but even so I took plenty of time here, consuming a few bowls of soup with bread, drank a couple of cups of coke (which seems to settle your stomach) , then some sweet tea, and finally eat some cake. I then let it settle whilst I spent a bit of time getting my drinks and other bits and pieces organised for the next section. I started to feel a bit more positive and eventually set off towards the last climb before the approximate half way mark at Courmayeur. A very thin crescent moon was rising in the stunning star lit sky, and occasional shooting stars flickered just above the horizon. To my left the looming bulk of the Mont Blanc massif could be sensed rather than seen, with its silhouettes of rocky spires and jagged ridges.
it always amazes me how quickly in ultra marathons you can go from rock bottom to feeling full of energy and ready to tackle whatever is thrown at you. The steep climb up the Arête du Mont-Favre held no fear for me now, my legs felt strong and all those negative thoughts had been swept away. The next feed station was just 4kms from Courmayeur, but what a 4kms! It was a vertical staircase down through the trees with the city lights far below. I was "in the zone" and my running auto pilot had taken over as at last I was actually gaining places rather than loosing them.
The narrow streets of the city were deserted with just an hour or so to go before dawn, but the trail markers picked out by my head torch led me to the sports centre where I would find my drop bag and have the opportunity to change clothing, footwear and pick up some of my own energy foods which I would be vital in the day ahead.
To be honest the Sports centre had the atmosphere of a morgue. people laying around in various states of fatigue. The food wasn't inspiring either, a plate of pasta with a meager topping of sauce, I had a small amount but enjoyed the drinks of sweet tea and coke much more.
25 minutes had gone by by the time I had changed shoes, t-shirt, applied sun cream and other minor but important rituals. Then I headed out towards the 800 metre climb up to Refuge Bertone. The ascent consisted of steep zig zags amongst tree clad slopes. My energy levels were pretty good and the occasional glimpse of competitors way above in the receding darkness didn't dispirit me. I arrived just after dawn for "breakfast" at the refuge. There wasn't much on offer though, some porridge or cereal would have been great. So it was just more sweet tea! A steward pointed me out to her partner, looking concerned. What had I done wrong? But it was just a patch of blood on my knee that I had gained after a tumble when I caught my foot on a wooden post on the start of the previous descent. She seemed very concerned by it and obviously wanted to leap into action with her first aid kit, I didn't have time for that though. It was only a small graze and I had actually forgotten all about it. She seemed diappointed.
A beautiful section of trail was the reward for that last climb, contouring pretty much the next 10 kms with great views of the Mont Blanc massif across the valley. Chamonix was somewhere behind that, it still felt a long way off. The next "offering" was the ascent up the highest point on the circuit, the Grand Col Ferret on the Swiss border at an altitude of 2537 metres (that's 8323ft). I still seemed to have quite a lot of energy and the temperature was ideal with a slight breeze to temper the heat of the sun. I chatted to a group of three Brits that a caught up at the Refuge Bonatti, they agreed that you had to battle through low points, but pointed out that they hadn't experienced any highs yet!
Fortunately my good spell continued all the way down to the next checkpoint at La Fouly, my choice of footwear (highly cushioned Hokas) allowed my to accelerate downwards as if on a roller coaster. I was ready for a bit of a break though at the La Fouly feed station which seemed to occupied just by British runners.
The next 10 kms continued on a gradual descent, but it did require a lot of determination to keep running after nearly 20 hours on the go. I started looking at my GPS and the kilometers seemed to be taking a long time, I thought I was near another feed station at Praz de Fort which was marked on my profile, but it was just a deserted village of wooden houses amongst alpine meadows, straight from a chocolate box cover. There was actually a bit of a nasty climb up the the next feed station at Champex Lac. Part way up was a unscheduled checkpoint - to stop people cheating by getting a lift up the road!.
I got the impression quite a few people threw in the towel at Champex. There were a lot of very tired looking people strewn around the large feed station. Once again the food on offer was not particularly enticing, with cheese and biscuits, salami and other pretty indigestible items, so I was glad of my raspberry "chia" drink which I made up from sachets, it was refreshing and provided a bit of energy too.
Champex is a small holiday resort next to a very scenic lake, and there was good support running out of the town towards what looked like a fairly steady climb on the profile. After running alone for so long it was a pleasant change to join up with a small group consisting of a couple of French men, a French lady and a young Spanish runner. Unfortunately the French contingent who seemed to be confident in the route led us up a wrong turn and after a brief discussion we decided to backtrack and soon found the correct route, but it was a bit frustrating to do an extra kilometer of running!
There were "only" two climbs left after this one, so it felt like the finishing line was actually tangible. My average speed suggested that I would finish in under 30 hours, but according the the schedule I had I was behind that pace required for that. I soon found out why. The climb up Bovine was brutally steep and relentless. A couple of Brits I had met earlier in the race caught me up and left me behind, they were chatting away as if they were on a a leisurely walk. I was starting to struggle with my energy levels again but I was having rationing the energy gels I had so I would have some left for the final climb. Eventually the gradient eased to a more gentle angle through pastures filled with grazing cows, some of which were blocking the path, all were fitted with standard issue alpine bells. I once again was struggling to maintain a decent pace on the remainder of this climb and the long descent to Trient.
The climbs on the UTMB are long, but sometimes the descents can seem even more daunting. After a steep section through woods the next checkpoint looked to be just a few hundred metres away at a hotel in the valley bottom, but then I realised that the descent actually continued into another valley hidden around the corner, and a friendly spectator pointed out where the checkpoint was, way down below still! Some further sections of very steep trail had to be tackled to get there, and once again the checkpoint feed station was a very British affair, and I compared notes on our levels of fatigue. After my previous mistakes I decided not to rush away to fast so I had a bit of time here to try and digest some food, and that was a wise choice as the next climb was also a monster (well it felt that way at this stage in the race). Heading up the 700 metre climb to Catogne I was alone again almost on autopilot, grinding out the zig zags and looking at my altimeter as the digits gradually reached the target of 2027 metres. I found the next descent back into France equally tough, but the fact that just one ascent remained spurred me on.
The Vallorcine checkpoint was the last large feeding station and I now had to get organised for a finish in the dark. Most other runners seemed to have the luxury of support teams to help them get there kit organised, stock up on their own preferred food and even provide a change of clothing and footwear. Certainly the lack of decent energy food had made it tough going for me and I had been forced to saved my last two gels for the final climb of La Tête aux Vents.
In the fading light of Saturday evening I plodded my way up the last ascent. I was feeling dizzy at times and my breathing was getting quite laboured and noisy. I was literally on my last legs! A group of about 6 runner stormed past me, coming out of nowhere, they must have had some good fuel at the last stop. I had my last gel and stumbled on alone. Bending down to wash my hands in a stream ( they were sticky from the gel), and then standing up again made me very light headed. I had to use my poles to just keep upright, I think my blood sugar levels were a bit low!
Somewhere ahead was the final descent that I had run a few days before, but in the dark it was very hard to judge distances, I could see the lights of the La Flégère cabin lift, but around each corner they never seemed to get any closer. I could also see more runners lights behind starting to catch me up, and this spurred me on to try and keep a reasonable pace going. At least the bouldery traverse suited me a bit, and I actually caught up a couple of people who had overtaken me on the last climb. It only took me 30 minutes to complete the section from La Tête aux Vents to La Flégère, although it seemed much longer. Time just like your pace seems to be able to speed up and slow down on endurance events. I had now been going for 30 hours but at last the lights of Chamonix were in view 800 metres below.
I had virtually no energy left but somehow managed to run most of the last 8kms. Perhaps going downhill is more to do with fatigue than energy levels. I passed the cafe of La Floria which would be open again by the time many of the runners were completing this section on Sunday morning. Chamonix was getting close now and soon I was running through the outskirts of the town, obliged to run rather than walk (which I really wanted to do) as there were now quite a few spectators cheering me even though it was rapidly approaching midnight.
Despite the late hour the support at the finish line was amazing, if you were in a hotel near the main square you would be struggling for sleep I think. Since the first finisher (over 10 hours in front of me) there had only been another 156 people cross the line, and still another 1500 people would finish behind me. But however long you took, just to get around the course inside two days is a big achievement that many people aspire to. I had been on the go so long it was actually hard to conceive of a time when I had not been running around Mont Blanc. I picked up my prized finisher gilet, and walked back to my accommodation in a daze.
Awaking from a deep sleep I looked out the window at Mont Blanc in the faint light of dawn. Was that all a dream? It felt like it could have been but my aching legs, thirst and hunger told me otherwise!