Race Report: The quest to complete UTMB
The ultimate bucket list race for many trail runners is Ultra Trail Mont Blanc (UTMB). Officially 171km around the Mont Blanc peak covering France, Switzerland and Italy.
You don’t just stumble on UTMB. Entering the race isn’t easy. I needed multiple ballot tries. You also have to make sure that you have the relevant ITRA points or Running Stones to qualify for ballot entry.
It was my first time in Chamonix during the UTMB week. Despite a smaller audience than usual, the atmosphere was electric. While carbo-loading in restaurants, you could literally spot who is who in trail running. Just soaking up the ambience in this alpine town during UTMB week is worth a visit.
I had planned a recce trip in June to run the UTMB circuit over three days. With Covid travel restrictions and quarantine requirements still rife I had to cancel this trip. Thus, the actual race was the first time ever I put a foot on the course.
“Still waters run deep” sums up the ultra trail runner. Quiet and humble on the surface but below lies a raw passion and complexity that’s second to none and at UTMB, there were thousands of us coming to do the same thing….fueling our trail running passion.
UTMB starts on Friday evening. I did the race check-in on Thursday which was very smooth. There was an extra service to get guidance on equipment choices and an expo for last-minute purchases. I spent Friday resting and trying to sleep daytime. I double and triple checked my equipment and drop bag. Being well organised helps in ultra running, knowing what you store in every pocket of the race vest. I had a fresh set of clothes, shoes, chafing cream, extra batteries and head torch and nutrients prepared for my drop bag.
There was excitement among the trail runners leaving Chamonix to take on UTMB. Everyone was cheering and wishing each other good luck. The streets were lined as we departed Chamonix. Generally, in every town, the race goes through the locals were out in force to support regardless of the hour. It made you feel very welcome.
The initial 31 km to Les Contamines was a breeze with a combination of road running, some paths and lighter climbs. I was asking myself if the race would be this “easy”. My worry to be short-changed didn’t last long as I left Les Contamines taking on the climb to Col de Bonhomme, followed by a steep decline and a further long climb to reach the Italian border. Trail running had definitely started, and the trails were well prepared but at times technical being narrow and with stones. I would say that bar from the deep climbs the UTMB trail is runnable. Reaching Courmayeur at 78km, felt like a game-changer in terms of race progress. Mentally I felt there is nothing to stop me now. I changed from my Hoka Speedgoat in Courmayeur to the lighter Hoka Torrent. I felt that a less cushioned shoe would help me run better. I also saw that the Hoka Zinal was a popular shoe choice. Poles, a high-quality race vest and a foot care kit are other essentials. I had the best race vest using an Ultimate Direction Adventure Vesta 5 Women.
During the 2021 UTMB, there was a cold-weather warning issued meaning there would be minus degrees nighttime and frost. I had an extra Montane thermal layer packed and thicker gloves. Still, after reaching the top of Grand Col Ferret before 100km I suffered from hypothermia. I was wet from sweat and shaking from cold. My hands were frozen. There were strong winds on the top. I got my emergency blanket out to keep warm but what helped the most was simply to move to descend to a lower altitude.
I was out on the course two full nights during UTMB. During one climb the second night I passed a fellow runner who kept telling me about the sheep surrounding us and the eagles circling our heads. These were hallucinations from a tired runner. I watched another runner slip and fall badly. When it is cold and slippery nighttime you have to be alert and have respect for nature. Tragedies can happen as when during the TDS where a runner died on the trails. I thought of safety first and decided to sleep 45 min at Champex-Lac at 123km. Despite a longer stop at Champex-Lac, I actually overtook runners who hadn’t slept. Sleep work miracles. The longest stretch for me was from Vallorcine at 150km to La Flegere at 161km. It was 11km but took almost an incredible three hours.
What attracts me to trail running is the freedom and being part of nature. When you are in those mountains climbing a vertical pass, in the middle of the night, with subzero degrees and wind whipping your face, I got the weird feeling of being unstoppable. I saw the moon highlighting those mountain summits with snow and you realize you are in the most technical and dangerous place of the race, but this is where I found “true” freedom trying to fly between the rocks.
I learnt that while UTMB is officially 171km, everyone knows the race is about 200km given the extra turns you take in the villages and zig-zag trails. Be prepared for a mental long haul. Maybe it was because of covid, but aid stations were well stocked with snacks but few warm meals other than soups and plain pasta. After 24h, my watch told me I burnt 6000 calories. My tummy was rumbling with hunger. The bread, cheese, bananas and warm broth available were not enough. Someone said, do not race just move efficiently, use each and every step to save calories and make it easier. Good advice! You need to bring your own container and cutlery to eat from which many runners had missed. I would have loved to have a more substantial meal during the race.
It was fabulous at UTMB as there was absolutely no ego and top athletes were respecting the last persons arriving after 48h. It was beautiful to see. Even if you are destroyed after your race, you want to be there at the finish line and cheer the persons who spent two full nights and days on the mountains. I literally never saw people spending 48h in the mountains with big smiles returning to Chamonix.
I had a fall after 110 km injuring my right knee meaning I couldn’t run downhill so I was out for longer than expected at above 40h. If I will redo it? The answer is not yes but when. And I want to be better and faster.
When you passed the finishing line for each runner Vangelis’ “Conquest of Paradise” was played. A great moment that I will forever cherish!
On Monday morning, as I checked out of my accommodation heading to Geneva airport to return to the UK, I met an American couple. I was proudly wearing my UTMB Finisher vest. The lovely Americans said: “We can’t believe you did UTMB. We are just setting off to hike the UTMB circuit over 10 days!”
I am pleased to say I had a beautiful, brutal one of a kind weekend and had the “Conquest of Paradise” still ringing in my ears!