The Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) takes place in the awe
inspiring European Alps. A place where majestic white capped peaks rise
poetically from quaint villages and green valleys. A place so beautiful that when
I arrived I wanted to break into the song The
Hills are Alive
from the Movie the Sound of Music.
But when I found myself backsliding down a muddy ski slope
during UTMB all I could think of was trying not to kill myself. When I finally grabbed hold of a tree stump to stop from
shimmying right off the mountain, I righted myself, took one more step, and
went down again. There was no singing Doe Ray Me
now. It was a night out in the pouring rain and snow.
|Family Before the Start|
This year’s UTMB was 104 kilometers with 20,000 feet of
elevation gain, a shorter version of the traditional 100 mile course with
30,000 feet of gain. Race officials decided that the high mountain passes on
the traditional 100 mile course were too dangerous from the rain, snow, fog and
ice. Was I disappointed with the change? Absolutely. It’s always difficult to
spend months preparing for something specific, like a 100 mile race in the
Alps, travel half way across the globe, then learn that you are running a
|Ready to Start|
When the gun went off some 2,300 runners from around the world scrambled through the narrow streets of Chamonix. It reminded me of a big city
marathon, with supporters along the streets cheering loudly and kids reaching
out for high fives. With such a large number of runners and fans in the streets
there wasn’t much room to run. I got stuck pretty far back in the pack at the
start and it took around 15 minutes before I was able to really run my pace.
There were so many runners that I very rarely found myself
running alone on trail. Despite the crowded conditions, particularly in the
early stages, runners were very focused and deliberate about where they were on
the trail. I found Europeans to be very considerate and mindful of other
runners, which was different from what I heard. There were times when the trail
was so crowded I had to watch every step in order not to trip the guy in front
or me. This was more impressive given most runners (including myself) used
My disappointment with the course modification quickly faded
once I started experiencing the conditions. The race started at 7 pm in the
rain with snow around 6,000 feet. Race officials sent a text to the runners before
the start advising of the inclement weather. They suggested we carry four
layers of clothing. It turned out to be good advice. With the snow, rain and
fog, by the time I hit the 18 mile aid station my fingers were numb and I was
beginning to shiver when I stopped.
Thankfully my fearless wife and daughter were there waiting
for me in the rain with dry clothes (all wrapped in plastic bags). I quickly
changed into dry layers and new gloves. It turns out that wrapping my spare
clothes in plastic bags was a life saver. I met some other runners who didn’t
use plastic bags and their clothes were soaked when they got to the aid station.
They had to drop.
The closest I’ve come to running in this much mud was in
Washington State at the Capitol Peak 50 miler in April. I wasn’t equipped for the
mud then and I wasn’t now. One thing I’ve learned is that real mud and Hoka One
One shoes don’t work well together. As much as I love my Hoka’s (I’ve raced my
last six ultras in them), they’re dismal in slime. I would liken them to hover
crafts when they touch slippery terrain. I was on my ass so many times I was afraid
to stand up, opting for my hands and knees like a toddler learning to walk.
There were times when I just shook my head and wondered if
the person who designed this modified course was angry or simply masochistic.
Did we runners do something wrong here? We would climb up several thousand feet
of technical, steep trail, then descend, then climb again. The climbing was
different than what I’m used to here in California. These weren’t long gradual
climbs like you find at Western States or Angeles Crest, these were steeper,
longer and more technical. The kind you put your head down on and don’t look up
for an hour or more later, and when you do, you regret it because you still
can’t see the top.
|Makeshift Race Profile|
In the early section of the race we followed the traditional
UTMB course. Around mile 23 we veered onto the alternate course and into the
unknown. The trail was marked well, but I was never sure of the distance we had
travelled. There were no distance markers along the trail. The day of the race
I traced a copy of the race profile to carry with me to give me a sense of the
timing and severity of the climbs. I’m not sure this helped much because I
remember being surprised very often - by the number and size of climbs. I think
I was just beat up and exhausted. And probably in denial.
At one point I asked a few spectators how far it was to the
finish line. I was physically and mentally done. Two kilometers I was told.
Thank god, I thought to myself. So as I came off the mountain and into the
village I could feel the energy building inside of me. My pace quickened. I
removed my headlight to prepare for the finishing photo. Then I rounded a
corner and ran into an aid station tent. What? “Is this the finish?” I asked another runner. “No the finish is in
Chamonix!” he replied. I felt like a dope. We still had 5 miles to go!
As I approached the village of Chamonix, my body was spent.
But I could hear the people cheering and see the kids raising their hands to me.
My pace quickened. Then I saw my family. My two daughters jumped out to the
street and ran on both sides of me. As we made our way through the next few
turns toward the finish, the crowd grew louder. I reached out for my daughters’ hands. I looked
at both of their faces and knew they were in the moment. They smiled back at
me. Then, 17 hours and 56 minutes after beginning this trek, we raised our arms
and stepped across the finish line, together.
As always this event was only possible with the support of
so many volunteers and my crew. Thanks to the volunteers at UTMB who worked
hard throughout the night in difficult conditions. And a special thanks to my
crew including my wife Jen C, my two daughters and our cousins Steve and Clare
P. They braved the bad weather to make sure I had what I needed for this
|Beat Up and Glad to Be Done! |
Will I Return?
Maybe. There are a lot of great things and not so great
things about the whole UTMB experience. Let me lay out some of the positives
First, the spectators are stupendous. They were out all
night in the rain chanting silly chants and singing silly songs. They have so
much passion compared to spectators in the United States which, outside of
friends and family of the runners, are pretty scarce. The volunteers were also very cheerful and helpful, even
with the language barrier.
Second, the European runners are amazing. Over 2,300 runners
entered UTMB, a significant majority being European. What I noticed about them
was when we were climbing up these endless hills in the middle of the night
under the cold rain and snow, or groveling in the mud like pigs, I never once
saw anyone complain or appear
distraught. No one really even talked (language barrier?). I’m thankful that
most of them didn’t speak English because I threw quite a few pity parties out
there; and they just looked at me and shrugged. The European runners might just
be a little tougher than us American runners, well, at least this American
Chamonix and the Alps are not to be missed. My family spent
six days in the village. Even with the challenging weather during the race,
there is something storybook about the whole experience. You walk through the
village with thousands of ultra runners, sit down for a beer and a Cuban cigar,
look up at the jagged mountains, then have some cheese and foie gros. Not
exactly a pre race ritual you want to make a habit of, but you’re in France!
First, when you enter UTMB, unless things change, there are strong
odds that you won’t be able to run the 100 mile distance. The race has been
held for ten years and shortened twice due to severe weather. Why UTMB race
officials haven’t devised an alternate 100 mile course (i.e. Western States) in
the event of poor weather conditions I don’t understand. There are so many
trails in the Alps! The 2012 course included a climb up several thousand feet
on paved road. I’m confident race officials can figure out an alternate “snow
course” at a lower elevation but with trails of similar quality as well as similar
distance and elevation gain as the traditional 100 mile course.
Second, crew support. This one is inexcusable. When my wife and 13
year old daughter were waiting for me at the aid station there were no places for
them to seek shelter from the cold rain in the middle of the night. When they
tried to duck under a race tent, they were scolded by race officials and asked
to leave. Because of the cold rain both of them struggled to stay warm
throughout the night. My nine year old daughter waited for two hours in the
rain with her aunt and uncle to catch a bus back to Chamonix.
UTMB bills itself as a “semi-autonomous” event with crew
support limited to one person per runner. The Official UTMB program talks about
“adapting oneself in the conditions of the country in which one is situated”.
But UTMB goes overboard here. While still trying for a man versus nature right
of passage, it has become a mega marketed event catering to 6,000 runners,
their families and friends from around the world. It’s time UTMB wakes up an
realizes it is now the New York City Marathon of ultras. Putting up some
shelter for the families and crew when it is pouring rain would be a good
|Lining Up to Receive Race Packets|
Third, I chose to start running ultra’s because of the low key,
down home atmosphere these races offered. Unlike big city marathons, which are
marketed to the masses and are designed as mega events, I believe ultra’s should
get us away from the crowds and into nature. The Ultra Trail Mont Blanc is an
incredible event, but it does not get you away from the crowds. It started
“from a meeting of friends to make the tour of Mont Blanc by path, individually,
in a single stage”. But with so many runners and support crew, there is no
making the tour of Mont Blanc individually. Unless you are a front runner, you are surrounded by people nearly
every step of the way.
UTMB describes itself as an event of “liking and practicing the mountain and respecting it.” My question to the race directors is how large does this event become before one should question their respect for the mountain?
Having not run the full 100 mile trail of the Ultra Trail Mont Blanc, I think it is impossible for me to draw a fair conclusion on this event. To do this would require me to come back to Chamonix for another bite at the apple.