Ultra Trail de Mont Blanc, 30 Aug – 1 Sep 2019
|UTMB Finish Line in Chamonix|
Let’s get the big question out of the way first. I finished the UTMB in an official time of 42 hours and 43 minutes (although my watch time was 3 minutes shorter as it took me that length of time to cross the line at the start). The official distance was 171.5km with just over 10,000m of vertical ascent and descent, although my watch recorded 178km and 10,200m of climbing. I was 979th out of 2,543 starters and 120th (out of 460) in my age category.
Goals and targets
Those are the hard numbers, but the important question is “how do I feel about it all?” Absolutely delighted! Just finishing this race was for me a long-held dream finally fulfilled after years of planning and preparation.
I have been in awe of the UTMB ever since we just happened to be in Chamonix during the third edition in 2005. It was a considerably smaller affair then, but I recall quite clearly my incomprehension that anyone could run for that long, or that far, and climb all those mountains, without stopping or sleeping. These people represented a different species from me. Of course that was long before I had any interest in endurance events, and if you told me then that one day I would take part in the UTMB, I would have asked for one of what you were taking.
The UTMB also holds special appeal for me because in many ways it is my “home town” event. Having spent considerable time in Chamonix over the past 15 years, I know well most of the trails and mountains, and once I started doing ultra marathons, it was only natural that it would nag away at my consciousness.
Although at the time it was not a fully formed plan in my mind, “Project UTMB” probably started over three years ago. Having run a few ultras and accumulated sufficient qualification points in 2016, I put in a speculative entry for the 2017 edition of the CCC (Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix – UTMB’s “little sister” at 100km). Surprised to win a place in the ballot, I trained for the race and had an amazing experience, absolutely loving it all. [Race Report]. After that there was little doubt that I would have to have a crack at the full UTMB. However, this is not a race that you can just enter. Once you have built up sufficient qualification points (from three authorised races of 100km to 100 miles within the past two years), you then have to enter a ballot with approximately a one-in-three chance of success. I was not successful in 2018, but that meant I had a double chance in 2019, and this time I was lucky.
I had set myself two goals for the race:
A. To finish. The primary and most important goal.
B. To have a “good race”; to feel that I have done myself justice; to do as well as I was able. A secondary goal to the first, but still an important one.
The first aim was of course achieved, but this should not be skipped over lightly. To even toe the line at the UTMB is itself a major achievement, requiring you to complete really tough qualification races, get lucky in the ballot, and train single-mindedly for 9 months or more, whilst at the same time avoiding injury and illness.
Once in the race, finishing is by no means certain, and this year only 1,555 (61%) of 2,543 starters finished the course. The number of finishers was considerably lower than previous years, probably as a result of the severe weather conditions on Saturday evening. I hope it does not sound arrogant, but there was no point during the race when I seriously doubted that I would finish. I had done the training, I was in good shape with no injuries, and I managed to keep decent headroom versus the cut-offs – as long as I could stay awake, and avoid an accident or a major breakdown, I was going to finish. Of course there were times when I was exhausted, or when my legs were screaming “enough”, but the key is to not let your mind find excuses for your body to give up – mental resilience is everything.
|The fine weather meant stunning views: Monte Bianco from the Courmayeur ski area|
Goals and targets – a “good race”?
What about my secondary objective – did I feel I had a good race?
I had set myself a somewhat arbitrary target time of 42 hours, based largely on the results from the previous year’s race, and my feeling of where within the overall field I would hope to be placed. I wanted to set a plan that was achievable, and thus would provide me the positive reinforcement of being “ahead of schedule” during the race. At the same time I wanted something sufficiently ambitious and, importantly, with sufficient headroom against cut-off times in case anything went wrong. I hoped 42 hours was the right balance, as it represented (based on 2018 results) the 40th percentile of starters and 56th percentile of finishers. This was not quite as highly ranked as my CCC performance in 2017, but much better than my result in the 90km du Mont Blanc in 2018.
As it turned out I made an error in my calculations. For the first third of the route, my actual timings were pretty close to the schedule (getting 15 minutes behind at Chapieux, but being back on schedule by Col de La Seigne). However, after Col de La Seigne as we passed into Italy, we had to climb a further col (Col des Pyramides Calcaires) which, due to bad weather, had been cut from the 2018 race, and which therefore was not properly accounted for in my timings. As a result I was over an hour behind at the next checkpoint at Lac Combal, and I was unable to make up much of that deficit through the remainder of the race. So the bottom line is that I missed the 42-hour target by nearly three quarters of an hour.
|Leaving Lac Combal with the Col des Pyramides Calcaires in the background|
Despite missing my target time, I do still feel that I had a “good race”.
1. Whilst I missed my target time, my ranking in the field (38th percentile of starters) was marginally better than my target.
2. Throughout most of the race I was making progress through the field – from being 2,350th at the first checkpoint in Les Houches, I rose to 1,207th at the “nearly half-way” mark in Courmayeur the next morning. I reached a highpoint in ranking at 925th just before Trient on the second night, before stabilising and fading slightly over the last morning to at finish at 979th. Such steady progress through the field always gives me a positive feeling about my performance.
3. Although a much more subjective measure, I felt that I finished “strongly” with a decent final climb, and running most of the final descent from Flegere all the way to a sprint across the finish line. Struggling over the line tends to leave me a little down about my effort, whereas finishing strongly typically gives me a much warmer and satisfied feeling.
4. Given I finished strongly, maybe I could have gone a little faster if I had pushed harder. However I do not think I could have gone that much faster, and there was certainly a point in the race where I became risk adverse – making sure I got the finish by not taking risks on the descents.
5. In a strange way, I quite enjoyed the race, and this is usually a sign that it went reasonably well. It seems that I am smiling in every photo that was taken of me. It was a long slog but I never really had to run through real pain. My lows were not as low as I feared, and the highs higher than I could have hoped. So, yes, I enjoyed it.
|Always smile for the cameras!|
Impressions of the race
The UTMB is a crowded race. It is a massive event with a large field on narrow trails, and the competitors do not really spread out until well over half way. There was only one point over the whole race where I could not see another runner directly in front or behind me. It is not a race for those looking to get away from the crowds.
|Emotional atmosphere at the start line|
However, the crowds are also one of the UTMB’s greatest assets. At the start, supporters packed the church square, were hanging from every balcony and vantage point, and were several deep along the barriers all the way through the town. The atmosphere at the start was spine-tinglingly emotional, and I confess it brought a lump to my throat. The crowds at Les Houches and St Gervais were just as impressive, and even at small villages in the middle of the night there would be small groups of supporters cheering manically. How can you not enjoy a race with such support?
UTMB is also a truly international experience. It passes through three countries, and 80 different nationalities were represented at the start line. Unsurprisingly the French were by far the largest contingent (35%). There was a decent show from the Brits with 136 of us, including Tom Owens and Andy Symmonds who would come 4th and 5th respectively. It is a measure of the increased popularity of our sport in Asia that there was a massive number from China – if you include HK, China had 202 participants, second only to France, and over twice the number from the USA.
The weather conditions were generally good, and in retrospect amazingly good compared to the wintery snow that arrived in the Alps the following weekend. However, Saturday was hot with highs of around 27 degrees, with little by the way of a cooling breeze. It was too hot for my comfort, and I resorted to stopping at every stream from Bertone to Arnouvaz to dip my hat and buff into the cooling water.
|Thunderstorm clouds gathering at the Col de Ferret|
As the forecast had warned, the thunderclouds gathered early on Saturday evening, and they erupted just as I passed the Col de Ferret, the highest point on the course. With lightning igniting directly above our heads, accompanied by simultaneous and deafening thunderclaps, there started a storm of biblical proportions. Hail stones the size of small marbles rained down with such force that I had to cover my head with my hands to stop the pain of them hitting my skull. The storm turned the mountain paths into a cappuccino torrent – dark muddy waters topped with a white flow of hailstones. The skies were black, the mountains turned white, and we all got absolutely drenched. Many people decided to take shelter and wait it out. My preference was to get low as soon as possible and I ran the descent to La Fouly as fast as my legs would allow. It was tricky going and I saw many runners slip and slide significant distances on their backs over the moving slopes of mud. There were rumours circulating that some competitors had to be helicoptered off the col in a serious condition, but I do not know whether that was true.
As I had expected, the aid stations were generally well organised and efficient with an impressive stock and range of foods and drink. The marshals and volunteers do a stupendous job. However, I found the aid stations much busier that at the CCC two years before, and was disappointed to have to scrum to get to some of the food tables. Maybe I was just in the busy part of the race? Sadly the marquee at La Fouly was simply not large enough to cope with the ever-expanding crowd of runners and supporters escaping the heavy rain. It resembled a field hospital with stricken runners lying shivering under emergency blankets, and sodden clothes hanging everywhere. I had hoped to do a full kit change here to get into something dry, but given I couldn’t even find anywhere to sit down I gave up and decided to carry on and wait until Champex.
|View of Courmayeur valley from Bertone refuge|
Race tactics - Pacing
Chatting to Neil, my coach, a few days before the race, his last minute advice was to start really slowly. He warned me that the emotion and atmosphere at the start tends to get the adrenaline flowing and too many competitors tear down to Les Houches and up the first major hill at PB pace, putting them into the red far too early in the race.
Based on this advice I made sure I was near the back of the field at the start, and kept a really easy pace for the first hour, using the opportunity to stop and say hello to the many friends who had come to watch the start and cheer me on. In retrospect my start might have been a little too relaxed as there were less than 200 people behind my at the first checkpoint and I was getting on for 15 minutes behind schedule. Realising this I ran the first descent down into St Gervais a little quicker than I should have, and the impact on my quads would be felt the next day.
One of the real benefits of starting towards the back of the pack is that you spend much of the race overtaking people and moving up the rankings. I find that having “targets” ahead of you makes the climbs easier, and of course the positive progress through the field helps with the mental battle. I gained a massive psychological boost from this which lasted until the last third of the race, at which point I had probably reached my natural position, my ranking stabilised in the 900s, and I had to deal with the negativity of being consistently overtaken myself by other stronger athletes. My impression at the time was that hundreds of people were going past me and that I must be plummeting down the rankings, and it did become pretty depressing at this point. However, in retrospect, my ranking was not falling significantly and I was of course benefiting from the “unseen” overtaking of others who were resting or abandoning. Sarah was excellent at making this encouraging point to me whenever we met at aid stations.
Race tactics – Aid stations
|The old village of Dolonne before Courmayeur aid station|
Neil had also warned me to be very disciplined at aid stations, to prepare ahead of arrival a mental check list of things to be done, and to try to get in and out as quickly and efficiently as possible. I managed to be very efficient for most of the first night, running straight through Les Houches, and spending just a couple of minutes at St Gervais, Les Contamines and La Balme. However, after this I found I needed far more time at the aid stations than I had budgeted for. After the steep technical descent into Chapieux my legs badly needed a rest and it being 3:30am I also needed some food. I lingered there for over 15 minutes. Later that morning at Courmayeur I was probably in the worst state of my whole race, and needed a good rest and quite a bit of assistance from Sarah – it was my longest stop at around 50 minutes. Knowing that I had wasted a lot of time there, I started focusing again on quicker stops, and this worked well until Arnouvaz at 4pm on Saturday. After a long hot day in the sun I was badly overheated and desperately needed a cool-down, so I rewarded myself with a 25-minute unscheduled rest in the shade. I had always planned for Champex to be a longer stop because it is an important two-thirds point just before heading out into the second night, and thus I would needed food and rest. However, feeling exhausted and very sleepy, I took twice as long as scheduled. The story was the same at Trient. By Vallorcine I knew that the finish was there for the taking, but my target time was beyond reach, so I relaxed and enjoyed the stop chatting to friends and eating fruit.
|Leaving the Col Checruit aid station, one I managed to run straight through|
My schedule had budgeted for 2 hours at aid stations – I knew from experience at the CCC that this was optimistic, but had hoped that I could be more efficient this time. In actual fact it was the opposite and I spent a slightly embarrassing 4 hours 25 minutes at the stops. Whilst at the time I really felt that I needed every one of those minutes, and looking around me I was aware that most competitors were taking just as long – if not longer – there is no doubt that if I was looking at how I could improve my time in future races this would be the number one place to start.
Race tactics – Sleep deprivation
Linked to the issue of time at aid stations is the question of whether or not to sleep during the race. I had previously completed a number of events that ran through one night, but never before had I gone through two nights. Advice from Neil and others was that it was better, if possible, to try to get around without sleeping at all. However, if I felt that I was so sleepy that my progress was grinding to a halt, or it was getting dangerous, then I should stop for a maximum of 10 minutes for a “power-nap”. To sleep for longer would risk going into a deep sleep from which it would take longer to recover. In the event, whilst I did feel pretty spaced-out on the second night, I was able to get through without a nap. Many competitors did decide to sleep – whether it be a deliberate tactic or an unplanned necessity – and I lost count of the number of people I saw lying down in aid stations, or just curled up under an emergency blanket by the side of the trail. In retrospect I think my tactics were probably right for me, but I do wonder whether I might have been stronger – and faster in the long run – if I had taken a 10 minutes power-nap.
|Sunrise over Courmayeur from the Col de Ferret|
I had read many wonderful stories about the various hallucinations that result from sleep deprivation, and in a strange way was looking forward to experiencing the weird and wonderful. I did not experience real hallucinations – I did not see anything that just was not there – but I did notice a real deterioration in my brain’s capacity to accurately and speedily process sensory inputs. Someone sat by the side of the trail turned out to be a rock with a branch over it. A phone charger lead in the path turned out to be a twig. An information sign turned out to be an interestingly patterned tree stump. The next checkpoint turned out to be the red rear head torch from another competitor. A big crowd of supporters ringing cowbells turned out to be, somewhat obviously, just a herd of cows. There were just too many instances to recall them all, but I did pass some hours amusing myself at the unlikely things my brain thought my eyes were seeing.
Race tactics – Ascending and descending
|Contemplating the last big climb|
Whilst recognising that I am always going to be a back-of-the-packer and never going to be competitive at the sharp end of a race, I have always prided myself on being a good climber. I have become used to at least holding my own on the ascents, and often being stronger than most. I am not quick, but I have a good engine and seem able to keep going for hours at a decent tempo without having to stop. This is an important attribute in a race with over 10,000m of ascent, and in which I would spend over 20 hours marching uphill. The longest single climb (from St Gervais to the Refuge Bonhomme) would take over 5 hours. My climbing ability was the reason that I was able to move up through the rankings, and I improved my position on every single climb with the exception of the last big one from Col des Montets to Tete aux Vents.
Conversely, I know that I am not a great downhiller, but I did not realise quite how deficient I was until this race. I lost places on most of the big descents, and I realised early on during the tricky and steep run down into Chapieux that this was going to be a significant problem. Not wanting to be pressured into going faster than I was comfortable with, I was frequently stepping aside off the narrow trail to allow faster runners pass. Why am I so slow going downhill? There is no doubt that I need to work harder on my technique. It is also true that I was suffering from sore quads from that first descent into St Gervais. However, I think the biggest factor was my mental approach to the descents. I was so desperate to finish this race that I was taking the descents very conservatively. My mind was telling me that it was not worth risking a big fall or a turned ankle that could end my race just to save a few minutes. However, those “few minutes” on each descent added up over the whole race. My mind was also telling me to protect my quads for later in the race, and indeed on the last descent – when there was nothing more to save them for – I flew down quite happily. Back on technique, I had been using my poles quite extensively during the descents to protect against trips and to take some of the weight off the quads. In retrospect I think the poles reduced my descending speed significantly. On the last two downhills I stowed the poles and tried to run them properly, and it actually felt more relaxing and less hard work. It might have benefited me – physically and psychologically – to have taken this approach earlier.
|Running from Refuge Bertone up the Ferret valley with the Col at the far end|
Race tactics – Nutrition
I am usually lucky in that I am able to eat well when running. This race was an exception. All started OK with me consuming chocolate at St Gervais, some biscuits at Les Contamines, some soup at La Balme, and then some more soup and Chapieux. I was aware that things were not quite right at Lac Combal where I was unable to convince my stomach to accept my usually trusty ginger Hard Bar, and then the wheels came off at Courmayeur where Sarah’s carefully prepared breakfast was reproduced in the middle of the aid station. Thankfully the runners who shared my table were very understanding – guess they have seen it all before.
|A race powered by oranges and melons|
Following this I really struggled to eat anything except fruit. Oranges tasted great, and melon – both the watermelon provided by the aid stations and the cantaloupe brought along by Sarah – were delightful. I also managed to mix in the odd gel with the fruit to boost my sugar levels. However, anything at all solid (including banana) felt just too dry in my mouth, and I was unable to swallow it without washing it down with water. Sadly this was not an option because too much water hitting my stomach was what caused the vomiting at Courmayeur. I did manage some noodle soup at Champex and some black coffee at La Giete and Trient, but basically mine was a race powered by oranges and melons.
It still amazes me that the body can generate so much output – my watch tells me I burned 14,000 calories – on so little input. Saturday felt incredibly hot and I think becoming massively overheated was part of the problem with me not being able to eat. I was pretty worried because I have seen firsthand how an inability to fuel can derail a race, but thanks to Sarah keeping me supplied with fruit, somehow I managed to keep it going. Looking back, I think it also helped that my body had been healthily fed in the two weeks leading up to the race with Sarah preparing lots of specially balanced meals from the Runners Cookbook.
Crew and support
There are 5 major aid stations where you are permitted to receive assistance from your “race crew”. I was exceptionally lucky to have Sarah crewing for me, and she met me at four of these stations – the first at Les Contamines was too early into the race to warrant her getting the bus there. Having crew at an aid station is a massive positive. A friendly face is an enormous boost to morale, so much so that I found myself counting down the time to my next meeting with Sarah. When your crew is as organised and sorted as Sarah, it also really increases efficiency at the stops. Whilst I spent much longer than I had planned at the major aid stations, I know it could have been twice as long had Sarah not been there to help.
Ahead of the race we had sat down to discuss what spare kit I wanted her to bring and in which bag each item was packed. We also wrote a list of the things I would need at each aid station and the things she should check for me. I knew that by the second night my brain would not be working properly, and that she also would be pretty tired, so by having lists we could ensure nothing major was forgotten. This worked pretty well with one small but potentially disastrous exception. I had made the mistake of using a red dry bag for the kit I carried in my race vest, the same colour as the dry bag Sarah was using for her personal belongings. In my state of limited consciousness, a mix up was inevitable, and I grabbed the wrong bag off the table at Champex and Sarah was not able to get the right one back to me until Trient. It did mean that I carried totally a superfluous towel and a sewing kit on that leg, but was missing much of my mandatory kit. Fortunately Sarah also had a head torch in her bag otherwise I would have been, literally, left in the dark.
|My race crew extraordinaire made it all possible|
Quite simply, Sarah did an amazing job – efficient, organised, businesslike, supportive and encouraging but not patronising, and not bothered by my lack of “pleases” and “thank-yous”. She also had the added stress of driving around narrow mountain roads in the small hours of the morning, whilst worrying about my progress and being on time for the next rendezvous. She had little sleep on the first night and none on the second. It was an extraordinary performance by her and I cannot thank her enough. She has made many sacrifices over the past years in order for me to realise my dream, but she also played a very active part during this weekend to help me get the job done. It simply would not have been possible without her.
I was also exceptionally lucky to have many other friends come out and support me at various stages of the race. The Wilson family and the Andrews/Gaunt family cheered me on at both start and finish. Mike and Tessa saw me pass through Les Houches, met me again at Col des Montets and also at the finish. Rosie and Ric flew out specially to watch the race, meeting me at Vallorcine (thanks again for the peach!), Col des Montets and also were at the finish. Rob and Ali drove all the way around to La Fouly in Switzerland to meet me there, and got stuck in this dead-end valley due to a landslide blocking the road. Fortunately they had their campervan so were able to stay the night and the road was cleared the next morning in time for Ali to get back to see me finish. Neil was also there with support at Les Houches and at the finish line. Every one of these friendly faces was a incredible boost, and knowing that they were there supporting me redoubled my commitment that I just had to finish – letting them all down was just not an option. Thank you all.
One of the wonderful aspects of UTMB is that it is really well set up for friends and family to follow online with a live tracking website and little video clips of runners arriving at each major check point. I have lost count of the people who have told me they were checking my progress through day and nights. I had turned my phone notifications off to preserve battery, but Sarah passed on all the messages of encouragement. Again, this was an enormous help and a massive thank you to all my supporters from home.
Finally, I must also give thanks to Neil Bryant my coach. His training plan got me to the start line in great shape and free of injury. Back in February when we started working together, he promised me that he could get me to a UTMB finish, and he delivered on that promise.
Race details: UTMB
Photos album on Google Photos
Video montage on YouTube
GPS track on Strava