inov-8’s Matt Brown takes us behind the scenes of the 2017 UTMB in this blog post. All words and photos by Matt.
For many the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) is a feed to their motivation in the hope that one day they will be ready to tackle the 171 km trail that takes you around Mont Blanc. If the 171km wasn’t enough, the race also features 10,000m of height gain. Not for the faint-hearted.
It is one of the most talked about and hardest ultra running races in the world, but little attention is often paid to the people behind the scenes that make everything happen. Not just the event organisation, but the friends, family, and even hired help that gets each runner from A to B.
With many of the 2,300 runners, there is usually at least one supporter driving between checkpoints, changing blood-soaked socks and wiping snot from inside their dear beloved’s ear, before pushing them back out for another few hours of hard work till it all repeats itself again at the next checkpoint.
It all starts at 18:30 on a Friday afternoon when most people are finishing work and opening a bottle of wine, relaxing and looking forward to the weekend ahead. Tell any of those people that they need to put down their glass and run 171km, they’d tell you that you’re crazy.
With 30 minutes to go the 2,300 runners line up at the start in the centre of Chamonix. The atmosphere ignites. Thousands of people line the streets, banging the boards and shouting support for their favourite runners.
The sound of Conquest of Paradise gets louder and louder. Anyone that has been to the UTMB before will recognize this song as it’s played on repeat whenever there is a race start or finish. It really gets the emotions going.
If you’ve not been lined up along the start fences you can forget about seeing any runners setting off. I’m surprised there isn’t a punch-up, with people getting very protective over their space.
And then it starts.
With the first hundred runners setting off at speed, the remaining runners walk through a bottleneck with spectators at each side getting closer and closer.
After 2km, the runners can finally breathe and get into a rhythm. And that’s when the support crews jump into action.
The inov-8 team was there for the trade show, which was held in the centre of Chamonix throughout the entire UTMB week. It is an opportunity for the runners to speak directly with the brands that produce products for ultra and trail running.
We were also there to support two athletes. Damian Hall from the UK (below left) and Yassine Diboun from the US (below right). Read Damian’s pre-race How To Survive The UTMB and Yassine’s pre-event What It Feels Like To Be A UTMB First-Timer blog posts.
Both runners have a planned time which they want to hit. Damian is aiming to better his previous results (the best being in 2016 – 19th place in 25hrs 12mins), where as this is pretty new territory for experienced ultra runner Yassine.
The course had a slight change due to the weather. It was expected to drop to -9 degrees Celsius with snow on the top of some of the passes. The two most risky mountain tops were taken out and a new finish route was flagged. The start was also moved back by 30 minutes. All this had to lead into how we planned the timing of both runners and when we needed to be at each checkpoint. Here is our account of how the race unfolded.
Checkpoint 1: 31km / Les Contamines
The runners are close together at this point. The roads are busy and this delayed us from getting to the checkpoint. After the start of the race, we went to grab some pizza and this took a little longer than expected, meaning we set off a little late. Google still told us we’d be 30 mins early, however, the traffic got worse and worse and we arrived only 2 minutes after Damian had passed through. Nicky Spinks (the legendary Double Bob Graham runner who was helping us crew for both runners) was gutted. Luckily, Yassine was a little further behind and we were able to help him with refueling and changing his jacket ready for the cold night ahead.
Checkpoint 2: 78.1km / Courmayeur
With an expected arrival of the first runners at just after 02:00, we didn’t want to risk being late for Damian again. So once we arrived back in Chamonix, we picked up more supplies and headed towards Courmayeur, which is on the other side of the Mont Blanc tunnel (11.7km long).
Even after a 30-minute delay at the tunnel, we arrived in good time and headed out to scout out the feed zone area. It was around 01:00 and it was a strange sight to see all of the supporters waddling about. Right on cue, the leaders came through. Jim Walmsley in the lead followed by François D’Haere and then Kilian Jornet.
We waited patiently. Damian wasn’t far behind. Nicky was ready in the food zone. We didn’t want to mess this one up! I was waiting to get video footage of Damian arriving at the checkpoint. inov-8 colleagues Adrian and James had gone up the road to try and run with him and see how he was doing.
It was pretty cold outside. I was waiting in the cold with my camera ready. And then I was desperate for the toilet. I tried to call Adrian but he was not answering, that meant Damian was on his way! Damian came and went so quickly. He spent no time resting and was focused on the guy in front.
And that was it. For the hours that we had been waiting, within minutes he had been and gone. We wouldn’t see him until Champex-Lac.
Once Nicky had tidied up and came back outside to see the rest of us, we were all eager to find out how Yassine was doing. This is when we realised how hard this was going to be to try and support two athletes on two schedules. We had to wait another few hours before Yassine was going to arrive.
This did give us a bit of time to grab some food for ourselves. When you’re so focused on supporting the athletes, you forget about yourself sometimes. No time to rest though and we pushed on to stay awake.
James and Adrian ran back up the road to see Yassine in, Nicky went inside to lay out the food, and I again waited to get a photo… (in the cold windy darkness – I remember that moment oh too well). Just like Damian, Yassine arrived swiftly and went straight towards Nicky.
Yassine had a longer rest. He was starting to get pain in his hip when ascending. Descending was fine and he was pushing through the pain to continue. It was now a rush for us to get back into the car, back through the tunnel from Italy into France and then head into Switzerland to Champex-Lac.
Checkpoint 3: 122.8 / Champex-Lac
I have a bitter taste about Champex-Lac. I hate the climb into it (after the long, long, long descent) and hate the climb out (after the descent on the fire road). I really feel for any runner getting to this stage.
It was now daylight and we arrived for breakfast, which at this point was well needed. A few of the team were looking a little worse for wear after the long night of waiting and driving. A stop for coffee and croissants and then back to get the food ready for Damian’s arrival. Nicky was all set up and raring to go.
We had a bit of time to go until Damian’s expected arrival so I decided to go down the path to see if I could see him coming. I didn’t get too far before he appeared coming up the path towards me.
He said he was feeling a bit down and drained. That soon changed when he found out how close he was to the two guys in front. After that, the pace picked up and I struggled to keep up with hime while carrying my camera bag.
James and Adrian had emerged from the coffee shop and were waiting close to the feed zone shouting support and getting some videos for the inov-8 Facebook channel. Into the checkpoint and it’s Nicky’s time to shine and do her stuff.
Potato salad seems to do the trick this time (check out our 10 Trail Running Superfoods blog post). After another quick turnaround, Damian is off again.
We then have to make a difficult decision. Yassine is expected to arrive in the next 4-5 hrs. By that point, we would miss Damian at Trient. It was hard for us to leave Yassine unsupported.
Luckily, Matt Bennett, who was supporting another runner (Beth Pascall) was there to give us a hand. We’d helped by giving him a lift from Chamonix to Champex-Lac so, in return, he agreed to take Yassine’s kit and wait until he arrived. It was going to be a long and cold wait with not much to do. It was raining on and off which was good for the runners to keep them cool, but not for the support crews that had to stand around and wait.
We later received a message to say Yassine was in good spirits. Hurting on the ascents but pushing on through. He did not need support at Trient and could make his own way to the finish. The message came with relief knowing that we had not let him down. We still wanted to go back and support where we could. We ended up getting the chance to go back and see him later in the race and then run into the finish, which made up for missing out on some checkpoints.
Checkpoint 4: 138.9km / Trient
By the time the runners get to Trient, they are a lot more spread out, meaning there’s not as much of a rush. It’s a long and windy road back down from Champex-Lac towards Trient. It’s not so far for the runners, but it takes a little while to drive.
At this point, we had all been awake for well over 24 hours and the two in the back seat were starting to nod off to sleep every now and again – until we went around another hairpin bend and woke them up! The weather was still cold, but at least it wasn’t raining.
Adrian was looking a little worse than before so while he slept in the car. James and Nicky went to the support tent while I walked around the town to watch the runners come in and then leave.
Damian arrived not too long after the team had set up in the support tent. He was still running well. There wasn’t much of a gap towards the next runner, so after a quick pit stop he was off again in the chase for 10th position.
Next stop, Vallorcine – the last feed zone before the finish! Unfortunately, we didn’t make it back in time to see Yassine here.
Checkpoint 5: 149.2km / Vallorcine
We’d visit this checkpoint twice. The first was with Damian. It may only be just over 10km to run, but it’s quite a climb for the runners-up through a forest before taking on a tricky descent towards the town of Vallorcine.
We arrived well before Damian was due and as we had some time to kill – and I was getting restless sitting in a car – I decided to go for a run while the others set up in the feed zone. I managed to get quite far up the hill and watch as some of the earlier runners came down.
I knew Damian was close to Jordi Gamito, so when he passed I started my watch to check the split. Then Damian appeared.
He was pretty shocked to see me. He was also starting to look a little tired. The terrain was wet and muddy but he seemed to be moving well. I hoped that me talking to him for a little while might pick up his spirits a little. Telling him the split to Jordi was only 3mins 43secs may have helped!
We ran all the way down the hill towards the checkpoint where we would meet Adrian and James, who ran the last 200m with Damian. Nicky was ready and waiting. A quick turn around and he was off again. One last climb!
Luckily for me, Damian didn’t feel like eating the chips the guys had bought him – so naturally, as everyone else had their own, I go the leftovers. By this time, we’d hardly eaten anything so it tasted really good – even greasy chips smothered in ketchup and mayo (definitely not my usual choice!)
We then drove out of Switzerland and back to Chamonix, where we would wait for Damian to finish. The second time we arrived in Vallorcine it would be for Yassine.
We had time to kill, so I decided to go for another run up the hill to meet him on the penultimate descent. I managed to get a little further up the hill before Yassine appeared in the distance. I shouted from afar to which I received a reply, “Hey buddy.” A typical Yassine greeting.
The terrain was now super-greasy. Quite a few runners had passed since I was last there with Damian and it was now covered in deep mud. Marks in the mud of sliding feet and then a bum indent were a common sight on the top section.
Yassine was catching runners. His hip was still causing him pain on the uphill, but there were no problems running down and he was making up time. I actually spent a lot of time talking to another runner on the descent. He was from Stavanger, Norway, and he had been running with Yassine for some time. As Yassine was pulling further and further away, I left the Norwegian and ran to catch up with Yassine. No way did he look like he had run 145km!
Every runner we passed, Yassine would start a conversation. He had been running with a lot of these guys and as Yassine was slower on the uphill, the others had pressed on ahead. Now the tables were turned as Yassine flew past them on the descent.
When we reached the valley floor, we again met Adrian and James, who ran the last 200m, giving Yassine encouragement. Yassine didn’t stop for long at the checkpoint and he was straight back out heading up the last climb.
The final section had been changed due to the weather. Instead of a horrible climb of steps and switchbacks, it was now in the trees and didn’t look to be as bad. However, to gain the extra height elevation, the course dipped up and down along the valley which started screwing with the runners’ heads. After you’ve run over 150km, you don’t want the track to start disappearing with no course markers. It ended up sounding like the original route may have been better for some…
After one of the best descents through the forest, the runners arrived into the centre of Chamonix with only 1km to go to the finish line.
People line the streets and barriers, clapping and giving the runners that extra adrenaline burst to get them across the line. Spectators, walkers, support crews and locals alike. It’s amazing how many people are out there all day and night.
If you’re not already hooked on the race, try standing at the finish line when a UTMB finisher runs in. It gives you shivers. The music. The banging of the boards. The high fives. Truly a unique experience for not only the runners.
For Damian, he had been running for 22 hours. The pain on his face is noticeable, but the crowd is carrying him in. He ran the final straight with his two children.
As he crosses the line, he gives a sigh of relief. That’s it. 171km done. 12th place in a time of 22hrs 00mins. The hard work had paid off.
Yassine, meanwhile, finished in the dark. And even though it was dark, the number of spectators still out there cheering the runners on was incredible.
It was a hard one for Yassine but he made it. 89th place in a time of 28hrs 17mins.
The following day
There are runners finishing throughout the night, and it doesn’t just stop there. It keeps on going way past lunch. It was hard following our two guys over one night. I can’t imagine how hard it is to support for that long. So what do you do after running 171km?
After a lot of rest, it’s time to go out and watch the prize giving. It turns out Damian was not only 12th overall, he was also the first old man (veteran). It makes all the training worth it when you know, in a race with such a stacked field, that you can go and do your best to get such a good result.
Footwear: Damian: TRAILTALON 275. Yassine: TRAILROC 270. Pack: Both used the ALL TERRAIN PRO VEST. Clothing: Both wore clothing from our range, including the new WINDSHELL jacket and MERINO BASE LAYERS. Watch the video below in which Damian describes what mandatory kit he was carrying in his pack at UTMB.
Well done Damian, Yassine, all finishers, starters, and every single supporter who gave it their all to compete in one of the hardest races in the world.
The Friday and Saturday had its challenges. It wasn’t the best weather for most, starting with rain and then onto freezing cold temperatures. The weather kept changing and it was actually one of the most amazing things to witness when supporting. Here’s a few images of the change in weather. Enjoy, see you next year, and in the mean-time check out our A-Z of Ultra Running.