UTMB Week 2017 Review

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It’s been over a month now since I went to Chamonix for the events of the UTMB week. I was there both to run but also as a trail running fan. I had an incredibly stressful September and had no time at all to write down my thoughts and experiences but will do so now.

The Capital of Alpinism

In the last week of August I packed my VW Minibus on Wednesday to spend the rest of the week in Chamonix. The small village is known to be the European capital of mountaineering. I love mountains and I’ve never been there so going to Chamonix alone was thrilling.

After a bit more than three hours of driving I arrived in Chamonix and first spotted Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Europe, whose peak was almost covered in clouds. I searched a spot at a campsite close to the center and was lucky on my second attempt.

Chamonix Mountains Columbia Sponsor

Can you guess the presenting sponsor of the UTMB events?

Downtown Ultra Trail

After setting everything up I walked 10 minutes to the center of Chamonix to get my race bib for the 56k trail race the next day. The closer I got to the center the more it was obvious what was going on here during this week. It was all trail running! Hundreds of runners walked around the „Salon UltraTrail“ where dozens of race organisers and brands presented their events and products.

At a local sports venue the runners needed to get their race bib. I was standing in line for almost an hour because the identity and equipment of every runner was checked at the bib distribution. Despite the long wait time the organisation of the five runs of the UTMB is very reliable. It becomes clear that runners safety is the first priority of the race organizers.

Last Preparations For My Race

Back at the campsite I prepared dinner to fill my carb stores to the max. So it was all pasta and tomato sauce. The start of my race was in a Swiss mountain village about a one hour bus drive away from Chamonix and took place at 8:15am on Thursday morning. So I packed my running bag and prepared everything for the next morning. I tried to get to bed at around 8pm but had some troubles getting to sleep.

My dinner the evening before my race. Got quite some carbs in!

My dinner the evening before my race. Got quite some carbs in!

I woke up in the middle of the night at around 2am and couldn’t get back to sleep. So I started my race day with only four hours of sleep. After a big breakfast and two cups of coffee I went to the center and took one of the dozens of busses that drove the runners from Chamonix to the start in Orsières, Switzerland. I arrived there about two hours before the start and had plenty of time to worry about the weather.

The forecast looked like a dry first half of the race and heavy rain in the afternoon. That made me a bit nervous. I have some experience after running half of my marathons in the rain but in an alpine environment with technical trails and steep uphill and downhill sections is a different pair of shoes.

Running 10 Hours in the Rain

The weather forecast is often not pretty accurate, especially in the mountains. And so it began raining five minutes before the start. I put my rain jacket on and never took it of again for the next 10+ hours. The OCC (Orsières – Champex – Chamonix) starts with a short climb into a forest. After only 30 minutes I was soaking wet and it kept raining pretty heavily.

After the first big climb I arrived at the first aid station where I refilled my fluid stores. I was quite happy so far with my race and accepted the rain. There was anyway nothing I could change. In the downhill section that followed I found my running groove and made good progress.

The Rain, the Cold, the Mud

The next steep uphill was hard. It was still raining and the higher the altitude the colder the temperature. At the top the trail led outside the forest where it was windy as well. I was really cold and tried to run back down as fast as possible. But then there was the mud. Basically we were running down a small stream and it was pretty slippery. Luckily I only fell down once.

The stop at the next aid station was an example of how humble you get when running these ultra trail races. I got some soup and the moment I noticed that there is also some pasta at the bottom of my cup made me so happy. Soup and pasta, big smiles 🙂 When you go through struggles you don’t need much to turn positive again.

Pushing Through the Struggles

Another uphill section followed, the steepest of the day. I was mentally prepared for this hard part and so it felt quite easy after all. But again the cold at the top was hard on me. I raced down back to France to the aid station in Vallorcine where the cheering crowd gave me a big energy boost.

In the next part with some slight up- and downhills the sun came out for some minutes and was shining on the raindrops and the wet trees. What a beautiful moment! And then came the last big uphill, and boy did that hurt. My batteries were empty and I struggled mentally. That would have been the moment to put on some motivational music but I didn’t. Big mistake! I arrived at the last aid station after over 9 hours of running in the rain and was quite done. I sat down some minutes zipping on my Coke and tried to prepare for the last downhill back to Chamonix.

The downhill was hard and I chose to walk quite often. On this last 8k about 60 runners past me but I didn’t care. I just wanted to cross that finish line. About 2k before the finish I came out of the woods into the village. A runner next to me was all smiling and yelled at me: „Oh man it’s time for beer now“. I agreed and enjoyed the last 10 minutes of the race with all the people cheering. Still raining I crossed the finish line after almost 10.5 hours of trail running and headed towards the free finisher beer right away.

All the struggling just to finally cross that finish line

All the struggling just to finally cross that finish line

Lessons Learned

I was quite a bit slower than I expected. But the rainy and cold weather gave me the chance to make some unique experiences that will help me for upcoming races. I not only got the great feeling of finishing such a race in hard weather conditions but also learned some lessons:
1. A good rain jacket is key!
2. You don’t need to only cover yourself but also your backpack! I didn’t and all my warm clothes were wet as well after 30 minutes (stupid, I know)
3. Not listening to motivational music the entire race was a mistake. Do what pushes you when you’re mentally struggling
4. Don’t focus on weather forecasts too much. Be prepared for everything.

After a hot shower and a big dinner I went back to the campsite in my warm and cozy Volkswagen bus. It was already late and finding some sleep was easy this time…

What About the Other Events

After I got selected in the lottery to take part in a race of the UTMB week, I decided to stay some days in Chamonix and cheer for the pro trail runners. On Friday evening the start of the 170k main event was scheduled. I arrived about and hour early close to the starting line and it was already quite crowded. That didn’t surprise me because the field of athletes was probably the deepest ever at any 100 mile trail race. Three time winner and star of the scene Kilian Jornet came back to run UTMB together with two-time winner Francois D’Haene and the shooting star Jim Walmsley from the United States.

You could almost feel the tension of the runners especially when the hymn of the event, Conquest of Paradise by Vangelis, started to sound out of the speakers and the more than 2,500 runners began their journey around the Mont Blanc mountain massive.

The start of the 2,500 UTMB runners

The start of the 2,500 UTMB runners

About an hour after the UTMB start another race was about to finish. Well the first couple of runners were expected while the main pack of the 100k CCC event still had hours of running in front of them. The race was won by Hayden Hawks from the US followed by Marcin Świerc from Poland and last years UTMB winner Ludovic Pommeret. The finish of these first runner was quite an emotional thing and the crowd in the center of Chamonix made sure the noise level was worthy for the feat the runners pulled of.

Fast But Tough UTMB

In the evening and the next morning I followed the UTMB race online and it was exciting. Jornet and D’Haene as well as Jim Walmsley and former winner Xavier Thevenard were running close together. When I woke up Saturday morning and checked the rankings, Francois D’Haene was in front and opened about a 15 minute gap to second runner Kilian Jornet. One of the favorites, Jim Walmsley, fell back over night but was still running in a top 10 position.

When I walked towards the center the podium was pretty clear. I arrived near the finish line around one hour before the first finish. It was a fast but cold and rainy race with the first runners coming in after less than 20 hours which is awesome for an alpine 100 miler. There were hundreds, probably thousands of spectators and the atmosphere was great and got better the closer the runners got.

First one was Francois D’Haene who won his third UTMB equalizing the three wins of Kilian Jornet who came in second just a quarter-hour after D’Haene. The american Tim Tollefson completed the mens podium with his second third place in a row at UTMB.

At the women’s competition top favorite Caroline Chaverot needed to drop in the first third of the race cleaning the way for the winner Nuria Picas from Spain. Second women, same as last year, was Andrea Huser from Switzerland and third was Christelle Bard.

Is This Event Worth Going?

Well this is a clear yes! I’ve never been at a trail race that was better organized than the UTMB events. The many fans and the top runners coming each year make this probably the best ultra trail event in the world. And I didn’t even mention the beautiful mountain scenes you can see here in the three countries France, Italy and Switzerland.

It’s no miracle that thousands of runners want to run in one of the five UTMB events. Like in big marathons there’s a lottery and you not only need to qualify by running other races but you also need luck. If you have the chance to go to UTMB then do it, you won’t regret it. I’ll try to get into the 100k CCC race next year and hope I can make Chamonix a regular trip in the last week of August.

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Happy running
mikula

Mont Blanc

Of course the weather got better on the day I needed to go back home.

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