September 4, 2012

Ultra Trail Mont Blanc - 2012 Race Report and Commentary

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 different event.

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 trekking poles.

The Cold

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 Mud

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.

The Climbs

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 difficult journey.

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 and negatives.

The Good

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 runner. 

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!

The Bad

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.

Chaotic Start
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 start.

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.



Jukka Kukkonen said...

This was fun and interesting to read. Too bad it was such a horrible weather. I hope the race will be better in many ways next year. Congrats on your awesome performance. See you in Chamonix 2013!

Mont Blanc trekking said...

Every good or bad situations faces by us help us to learn more thinks. I'm feeling very bad for some worst experience you got during this tour. By reading your experience I can say that you have enjoyed a lot. Even I love to join your team.

Will Cooper said...

Thanks Trail Plodder. Congrats to you too on you great performance at CCC. Thanks again for the beer at the end of the race....that was the best tasting beer I think I've ever had! Look forward to seeing you at another fun filled ultra event, possibly Chomanix in 2013!

it's all about pace said...

wow... just so much wow.

will you go back?

I think you should try RATS....

EricG said...

Hey Will, Bummer about the change but sounded like it may have been the right move. Congrats on copleting what sounds incredibly challenging regardless. The cold can be brutal. Just ordered a pair of Hokas myself yesterday. Cant wait to try them. Hope we can catch up soo. Peace and Have A Great Day! E

Will Cooper said...

IAAP - going back is a decision that I'm going to wait a while to make. I'm still recovering from jet lag right now. Maybe after sitting down with some french cheese and wine I'll be in a better frame of mind. I'll look into RATS. Thanks for the tip.

EricG - congrats again on BW. Hokas are great, just be careful with them in the mud.

April said...

My Husband and I are from Oregon and ran UTMB for our Honeymoon in 2011. You were so poignant in your report. You said it better than I ever could. I usually write race reports but after a paragraph or two was unable to get past my disappointment to actually write that one. I am still trying to get the bitter taste of this race out of my head so I can remember the good parts, even a year later. Like the family outside of Cormayer whose enthusiasm for me was so honest I teared up, it didn’t matter I couldn’t understand them. Or standing around the fire eating cheese just before finishing the Croix du Bonhonne. Taking a nap with my feet up in the most breathtaking scenery. The women at Refuge Bertone who despite not speaking English or French (the two languages my husband and I speak) was able to recognize me and take me to my husband when I couldn't find him. He was sleeping with blankets and a mattress in a loft! The negative things were so overpowering a year later I would never go back: changing the start time to 11PM (do to rain) despite allowing the 100K runners to leave on time, forcing the 100 milers to run over 2 nights. Changing the aid station cut offs without informing the runners or even the aid station before (that was after they had already shaved 15 to 150 minutes off of each due to the changed start time). Refusing to let my husband take the only hot meal along the course out of the building (Mile 50) but letting me take mine out. Changing the course after the race started. Like you said the general lack of respect for the mountains when 2300 runner’s choose their own way up and down. The obvious emphasis on money and not on the runner. I don't need a helicopter filming me I need aid stations that will actually fit the mob of runners approaching it so you don't have to wait in line for 10 minutes just to get inside and fight over the food. There are people every year who must absolutely love this type of Ultra. But for me that type of a race is not why I run. thanks for letting me get a little more venting done.

Will Cooper said...

April thank you. For being honest, and for taking the time to write your emotions here regarding this event. I think it is going to take a lot of your kind of honest feedback to race officials before they will change anything. My hope is that, eventually, the money over mountain culture of this event will be overcome by the feedback you have shared here. We shall see. Thanks again.

susette said...

It was so nice of you to stop by and say hi on my blog. Yes, I have been silently blog stalking yours for awhile. I am very intrigued with ultra runners and what they can accomplish and have dabbled just a little bit in the ultra distance myself. This report of yours just seems to crazy for my brain to comprehend the cold, mud, distance and guck. Very very impressive. I'll be back again. Keep up the good miles:)

Anonymous said...

How about a gear rundown. Can you share what you used and what you may have done differently

Jill Homer said...

Nice work on a strong finish, Will. I agreed with a lot of your sentiments about UTMB. I do think there are parts of it that get "lost in translation" for a lot of North American trail runners who are largely used to more low-key events.

Last year, I crewed for Beat during the Tor des Geants. That race also had no kind of accommodations for crew. We were made to stand out in the rain, too, despite the huge (and late in the race, mostly empty) gymnasiums that were being used as Life Bases. I got the sense that crews were allowed but not necessarily welcome in "semi-autonomous races." I just accepted it as one of the quirks of European racing that's different fron North American racing. No one here uses pacers either.

Will Cooper said...

Anon: for gear I opted for a minimalist approach from my pack to the gear I wore. Because of this I'm guessing I ran 50% lighter than most. I used a soloman slab 5 set for my pack (the smaller of the two) which only held the mandatory extra gear and not a full change of clothes. for the rest I used Liki carbon lite poles, two lights (head lamp and another on my belt which worked very well), full length running tights with short tights over those, three layers on the top including under armor tank, long sleeve Hind tight top, and a Marmot water/wind proof jacket that is very light weight. Ended up with regular cotton gloves with Raid Lite water proof mitten shells over those which seemed to work well. The biggest lesson I learned is that in these conditions, it is important to always have something more you can tack on or zip up to gain more warmth without having to stop to do it. because once you stop your core begins to fall immediately. hope this helps.