The endless climbs, the quad-screaming descents and the searing heat… the 2016 Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) was beyond tough. Damian Hall writes about his experience competing in the world’s biggest trail running race.
Giving in to temptation
I had told myself not to check my mobile phone to see my placing until Courmayeur, nearly halfway around UTMB. But three hours in, I couldn’t resist. The secret was too big and tempting. Plus I needed a mental pick-me-up. But I didn’t like what I saw…
The idea had been to run the first half of the 104-mile route, which includes 10,000m of ascent and descent through the French, Italian and Swiss Alps, in a relaxed manner. To totally ignore splits and placings. And be stronger in the second half, when hopefully others would be slower. UTMB’s start is famous for its Parkrun pace and though I was in the elite pen for the first time, after last year’s 31st placing, I planned to play the long game. My aim was to finish in the daylight on Saturday, which should put me in the 20s.
We think there may have been a false start at the UTMB! The guy in the green shorts. Can we bring them all back please for a restart?! The 2016 @utmbmontblanc is go. Good luck to all over the next 104 miles. Click the link in our profile bio to follow our updates. #inov8 #allterrain #utmb #utmb2016 #TRAILTALON
After the manic start, it was lovely to run the first few miles with Jasmin Paris. But the first climb from Les Houches felt interminable, when last year it’d been a breeze. My visor was dripping with sweat. Jez Bragg, 2010 UTMB winner and master of the tortoise approach, joked that there were already 200 ahead of us. Negative voices started: I haven’t trained well enough. Perhaps my children’s leftovers wasn’t the ideal pre-race meal. I’ve definitely picked the wrong socks.
St Gervais, the first major checkpoint, was like a music festival. People, noise and biscuits everywhere. I felt dazed and confused. Not long after at the next checkpoint, I peeked at my phone (you can sign up for SMS race updates). 95th! Blistering barnacles. I’d taken the relaxed approach too literally. At this rate I’d be lucky to get in the top 50.
Staying positive and pushing the enjoyment factor
I stopped to loosen a shoelace and soon felt a bit better. Darkness brought coolness and I began gradually making my way up the field. I tried to stay positive and push the enjoyment factor, high-fived every hand offered (even if mine were sticky with banana and cola) and smiled at spectators. The crowds were amazingly supportive.
Now we were properly in the mountains. I was overtaking frequently on the climbs. But those pesky Europeans are ace descenders and usually half of them would get me back on the downhills. When I did find a descending runner to bypass, as I went up the bank to get round him, I misplaced my footing on the grass and my adductor spasmed alarmingly. I was only 30 miles in. It wasn’t meant to be this difficult.
But as the race got quieter in the small hours and we really began to feel alone up in those big mountains, I found that elusive sweet spot towards the top end of the comfort zone. The section before Italy’s Courmayeur was where I’d overcooked things last year. This time I stayed in third gear.
The perfect hard-packed trail running shoes for UTMB
The descent into Courmayeur was as quad-screaming as I remembered, the climb back out no more enjoyable. But I felt good. Or as good as anyone can feel after almost 50 miles of mountain running. The new TrailTalon 275 trail running shoes were working really well. I’d been half expecting to change into something even more cushioned here, but there was no need. I don’t recall a slip on any surface either.
The undulating plateau leading to the Arnuva checkpoint is my favourite bit of the course, and dawn revealed huge heroic mountains all around and a spectacular cloud inversion. I’d reached 28th. By La Fouly I was 25th. I was enjoying it. It felt unbelievably hot climbing up to Champex-Lac. We went so slowly we were barely racing. And that was in the shade. The shadeless climb to La Giete was even worse. So, so hot. So painfully slow. But somehow no one caught me.
I’d been to-ing and fro-ing with the relentless Andrea Huser, currently second lady, all day. I’d best her on the climbs. She’d get her revenge on the descents. I was 20th and ahead of her and another runner I’d just passed at Catogne, a small mountain-top water station. Being top 20 felt like everything. I hammered the downhill to Vallorcine. It hurt like hell. For once the checkpoint was out of soup, which made my transition quicker. One more climb. Just one more. The growing crowds were so supportive.
To my surprise I passed a hobbling Caroline Chaverot before the steep climb up La Tete aux Vents. But she seemed rejuvenated and I could hear spectator shouts and claps behind, getting ever closer. Soon I wanted her to catch me, for the mental torture to be over. But gradually it all went quiet.
Escaping the hunt and returning into the arms of Chamonix
The early evening sunlight was magnificent. Chamonix glistened below. I was running in the mountains. It may not have been very fast. But it felt magical. If I ignored all the glorious pain. The final descent was just as gnarly as I remember. With no views behind, I felt hunted again. But somehow I escaped into the arms of welcoming Chamonix, its hugely generous crowds and my two children waiting to run the last few metres with me. The best feeling in the world. I finished 19th in 25hrs 12mins.
My kit for UTMB 2016
As well as the TrailTalon 275 shoes, I used lots of other inov-8 kit, including the RaceUltra 5 pack and AT/C 6″ Trail Short. For more details see the Facebook video below, published the day before this year’s race.
* Relive the UTMB action as it happened in our live coverage blog post.