The Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) is the world’s most famous ultra-distance trail running race. Last year Lithuanian soldier Gediminas Grinius toed the start line in Chamonix, France, an unknown debutant. Just 21hrs 50mins later he returned in fifth place having crushed the brutal 168km mountain course, which includes a mammoth 9,600m elevation gain. Now one of the world’s best ultra runners and backed by a 2015 season stacked with impressive results, Gediminas goes into next week’s UTMB as a serious podium contender. Here are his top-10 tips on running the UTMB:
1 Go Schwarzenegger
You think elite UTMB runners don’t go to the gym? Think again. Combining your running with strength exercises such as squats, deadlifts and walking lunges increases endurance levels. I’m not a big fan of weights but try to use the fitness room as often as I can during the cold months to prepare my muscles for the summer challenges ahead. During race season, I do strength exercises at least once a week, including key work on my legs and core. The gym will never substitute the mountains, but it should be used as part of your training. Trust me, you will be thankful of strong legs on some of big UTMB climbs!
2 Be a family guy
Make sure the race doesn’t just become a celebration of your own ego. Whenever possible, include those closest to you in your UTMB bubble. Even better, make the UTMB into a family vacation. The Alps is an amazing place to spend time together, so share the experience. Having somebody you trust by your side can also be invaluable at a race like the UTMB. That person will likely know exactly what you need pre, during and post-race, so lean on them for help, support and crewing, and avoid the common mistakes that are made when tiredness kicks in. Remember, your family loves you and wants not only to celebrate the ups but help cope with the down as well.
3 Train hard
You’re highly motivated, right? But obviously that’s not enough for UTMB. The truth is there is no substitute for hard training. With long UTMB points qualification races already under your belt, you will be in a strong position and likely know how to adjust your training to prepare for the main event. For me it’s quite simple, the more time spent training means the more fun and rewarding the UTMB itself will be. I know that if I put the hard work in during the build-up, the race itself should be a celebration of that enormous effort.
4 Set benchmarks in the build-up
Register to race in a few smaller events leading up to UTMB. This can act as a substitute to a long run, or be seen as a tempo training session; it’s totally up to you. Incorporate the races into a training plan but don’t taper before them. These events are nothing more than scheduled training runs/sessions, the only difference is they are in a fancy race format. Remember, winning benchmark races is not your main goal!
5 Get good at planning
Good planning holds half the key to a successful UTMB race.
Recce -Knowing what is ahead of you is vital, especially for those participating in the UTMB for the first time. If you can’t travel to The Alps don’t worry, just study the map really carefully. If you don’t know how to do that… it’s probably a good time to learn! Good knowledge of the trail/terrain provides a huge advantage at the UTMB, as it eliminates a lot of the unknowns.
Pace -Plan your speed… and don’t start crazy fast! Control your excitement and endorphins, because you don’t want to burnout in the first hour. My advice is to go for the classic approach and start steady. This is what I did last year and then gradually worked my way through the field. Keep in mind that this is a beast of a race, which actually only really starts from the climb of Grand col Ferret at around 97km. Be patient and you will then have the chance to push your limits on the last uphill at Vallorcine.
Power hike -You will have to power hike certain stages of the UTMB course. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. Believe me, even the best of the best sometimes hike. There are benefits to hiking versus running during sections of the UTMB -it uses less energy, provides a slight rest, makes the best time for nutrition intake and uses different muscles so taking some of the strain off already overused running muscles. Be warned, however, after a long hike it is really tough to switch back to running. The temptation is to carry on hiking. Switching gears between the two is crucial and should definitely be practiced before the race.
Experience -Read race reviews and speak with other trail runners who have already taken part in the UTMB. If you don’t know them personally, don’t worry, just make the approach and you will find many runners more than happy to share their experiences, be that in person or via social media. Don’t be shy… just ask! This is exactly what I did before this year’s Western States 100 and gained invaluable insights by doing so.
6 Become a tech geek
Reading kit reviews is important, but choosing and taking the proper gear into the battle is a must.
Weight – each gram matters in the long run. Maybe it’s not as important in short races, but remember you have to carry your pack for 168km. Any unnecessary additional weight will slowly kill you on your journey to the finish line.
Poles -I’m not a big fan of poles, but if your legs are not strong enough then it’s a good idea to have some extra support. The UTMB has almost 10,000m of climbing, so if you think poles will help, carry them.
Pack -It’s your second skin and best friend for many, many long hours so get the fit right and practice using it.
Headlamp -Run blind or get the best lamp you can afford, that is your choice. The more light you have at your disposal the less tired you will feel, as it requires less concentration and vigilance. Don’t get me wrong, running during the night demands a huge effort anyway, but with the proper headlamp you will have a longer reaction time to the obstacles. Ok, it’s not an obstacle course race, but be sure that the UTMB involves a lot of jumping, running around and finding other ways to avoid stones, tree roots etc. These are kind of obstacles, right? Remember to carefully read the UTMB regulations and pay attention to the mandatory kit list, as it is checked randomly and getting it wrong could cost you a time penalty or worse, a DNF.
7 Dare to dream
A few days before the UTMB begin to visualize the race itself: the peaceful scenery, the magnificent Mont Blanc massif, the single trail… and yourself flying on it. Picture in your mind each stage of the course, the pace at which you will be running, the approaches to the aid stations, when and what food or fluid you are going to consume, the maximum effort you will give the last uphill to La Tete aux Vents and, of course, crossing the finish line with your loved ones cheering you on. During the race itself try to deceive your mind. Don’t run the whole UTMB course at once, but instead cut it into smaller pieces. It’s easier for our brains to cope with running 30km instead of all 168km at once! Make it an aid-to-aid or crew-to-crew race. Remember, the mind holds the power, so it needs training just like the body.
8 Be fresh
Tapering is very important. When you’re on the UTMB start line you must feel like a bear after the deep winter sleep. You want to feel a bit overweight, but still hungry and ready for the hunting.
9 Go Gourmet
Take your time in aid stations and taste the incredible food that UTMB organizers have to offer at Les Chapieux, Courmayeur and Champex-Lac. However, be aware of the goodies that you haven’t tried on your training runs, as experimenting on race day can cause an unexpected stomach illness. There is always plenty of choice, so you will definitely find something that suits your personal menu. Even at the first aid station it is wise to stop for a while to replenish your food and water reserves, because it will prove to be a big game-changer in the later stages of the UTMB. Don’t forget in training to test all the gels, electrolyte drinks and food you are going to use on the race day. You need to make sure that your body can tolerate it. On long runs or in benchmark races, check if a certain nutrition plan works for you. Remember, long ultra races are won by heart and mind, but with a very strong stomach too!
10 Be killer!
If you want to race then evoke killer instincts and hunt everybody down, step-by-step bringing yourself closer the finish line. This kind of mindset is really useful when fighting for the podium, a certain position, or just simply trying to improve your previous time.