inov-8 ambassador Damian Hall has completed Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) – the world’s biggest ultra-distance trail running race – in each of the last three years, steadily progressing his way up the field each time. In 2015 he placed 31st, improving that to 19th in 2016 and then last year finishing 12th (and first veteran aged over 40). Passing through three countries (France, Italy and Switzerland) and involving 10,300m of brutal elevation gain, the UTMB is truly unpredictable and attracts attention like no other off-road running race on the planet.
Over the years Damian has not only learnt how best to survive the 105-mile circumnavigation of Western Europe’s highest peak but also how to fine-tune his kit. In this blog post ahead of the 2018 race, in which Damian is aiming for a coveted top-10 finish, he shares his learnings about kit for UTMB (and ultra-distance trail running races in general), plus reveals the secrets to his success.
Damian Hall’s UTMB kit list
Mountains are skill. But they get weather. I’ve experienced UTMB in both 30˚C-plus (yuk) and sub-zero (yay) temperatures. The weather can do anything and I won’t make up my mind on several key bits of kit till the morning of the race – last year we had an SMS message on race day warning of -9˚C temperatures. So to avoid stressful last-minute kit hunts, it’s better to arrive in Chamonix with two or even three kit set-ups, prepared for all conditions. Yep, it’s worth forking out for a hold bag.
The most important thing in an ultra-distance shoe is simple, old-fashioned comfort. You’ll spend a long time on your feet and it’s better if that time is as un-ouchy as possible. The TRAILTALON 290 has been excellent for me at UTMB for the last two years, but this year I plan to start in inov-8’s dead-fancy new TERRAULTRA G 260, which are designed for this type of running; long distances on hard trails.
A wide, breathable toebox means comfort even if my feet swell, while the graphene grip has been excellent in training, including running the whole UTMB course over the space of three days last month. If it looks like the weather will be Biblical, I may just opt for ROCLITE 305, as slightly longer lugs will give a bit more grip for slippery mud and other soft ground. Likewise I’ll see what the weather’s doing before selecting socks, but I know from my long training runs that inov-8’s pinkie warmers always go unnoticed, the way good socks should behave.
Some runners will be in their pack or race vest for 46 hours, so you’d better be good mates with it. It needs to have capacity for about 5 litres of kit and 2 litres of liquid. I’ve been lucky to be trying out a prototype of a new pack inov-8 will launch in 2019 – and it’s just the job for UTMB. It’s comfy, with lots of accessible pockets (if key items, such as food, gloves or jacket, are out of reach I’ll be less likely to reach for them till it’s almost too late, which could be part of a race-ending chain of events).
This pack also has the option of soft flasks or a bladder, plus poles can be attached to the back or front. It also comes with a super-light collapsable cup, a la race rules. I used the ALL TERRAIN PRO VEST last year, which was superb too.
If the forecast is fair I’ll take the ULTRASHELL, which meets all the strict race criteria and yet still weighs only 108g. Being transparent, it means the event marshals can still read you’re race number through it – again another race rule. I’ll also take the excellently-named ULTRAPANT, which weighs just 86g. I don’t know of a lighter combination of full body waterproof cover.
If we might be in for a monsoon however, I’ll plump for the STORMSHELL. I wore this in 2017 when we had rain and hail, and it was ace. As well as the extra features and protection, the full zip allowed me to put it on over my race pack, meaning there was no stopping to layer up, which would have made me cold or much less likely to do it. It weighs only 175g.
Shorts may seem like one of the least important bits of kit, but the slightest aggravation can cause no end of physical – and mental – torture in the bathing suit area. I’m a fan of the 5 INCH TRAIL SHORT because it’s comfy, light, but also dries really quickly if it does rain. Long wet shorts can get pretty annoying and are more likely to chafe. Last year, however, for the colder weather, I wore the 6 INCH TRAIL SHORT, which is warmer, but also has impressive quick-dry properties. Again, a decision to be made on race morning.
Crucial: A lightweight base layer that wicks away moisture really effectively (I’m a sweaty runner). Bonus: One that looks stylish. I’m likely to wear a SHORT SLEEVE BASE LAYER (or LONG SLEEVE BASE LAYER if the weather looks damp), as I did in 2016. However, a warmer MERINO BASE LAYER will be very tempting if it might be cold, like last year, when the garment was perfect. Merino retains warmth when wet, so I wasn’t panicked into a change of layers every time there was a shower. Remember that waterproof jackets are much more effective if they’re not touching skin, so it’s worth having a long-sleeve baselayer option ready for the race (as well the one you have to carry for mandatory kit).
Who doesn’t love to accessorise? I love a WRAG me, and will likely wear one for the race. It can protect from sun, wind, cold, hide my increasingly large forehead, but also double as a hankie to wipe away snot, blood and tears. I may well take a RACE PEAK CAP, too/instead, if it’s going to be hot. The EXTREME THERMO SKULL HAT (mandatory kit) has excellent warmth for just 27g. Searching for gloves that are both warm and waterproof, as per race rules, befuddles a few UTMB virgins, but the ALL TERRAIN PRO MITT does both jobs. They were perfectly warm enough for sub-zero conditions last year.
I’ll use Black Diamond’s Distance Carbon Z Trekking Poles for a third UTMB. They’re light but robust, fold away quickly, and the grips don’t aggravate my hands. For a headtorch I’ll take Petzl’s excellent NAO+, which boasts up to 750 lumens and can be customised via an app, with a nifty little E-Lite as back-up (50 lumens for 26g).
My one luxury is my iPod Shuffle and music is my treat for when things start to get hurty and I can sing along to Kate Bush and Phil Collins to my heart’s desire (I prefer wailing morose indie, but listening to that is more likely to plonk me in a puddle of my own tears then spur me up the next mountain).
Damian Hall’s five secrets to UTMB success
100 milers are eating contests, and it may not look like it but I’m a greedy runner. I can’t wait to stuff my face with nuts, chocolate, cheese, 33Shake chia gels and gallons of salty noodle soup. Later in the race I may be more reliant on liquid calories, such as Mountain Fuel. It’s best to drip-feed, every half hour minimum. Nom, nom, nom. If Nicky Spinks (my lead crew support) is about, be careful where you put your macaroons though…
Pacing is critical to your performance and level of enjoyment. In this sport, the tortoise beats the hare. But of course we all want to be the fastest tortoise. With all the excitement early on, it’s hard to start at a sensible pace. But those who slow the least during the race are those who will do the best. Don’t be an idiot in the first half…
3. Be ready to suffer
… And don’t be a wimp in the second half. No matter how good your kit, how thorough your training, how vast your experience, a 100 miler will involve a visit to the hurt locker. Be mentally prepared for that. It never always gets worse and it’s good to think now about why you’re doing the race: what’s your motivation?
4. Be happy
But while you’re hurting, try to, er, be happy. Studies show smiles help you with the miles. High-five the kids. Swap grins – and remember to thank – with volunteers. Enjoy the ride. Remember, you paid good money for all this (suffering). Might as well enjoy it, eh?
5. Think of the finish
Admittedly it may be different in the small hours, but the UTMB finish is effing amazing. Imagine the London Marathon finish, but just for you. It’s better than that. The crowds are huge and generous and keep people like me coming back for more, and more. Bon courage!
* Damian Hall is an inov-8 ambassador, outdoor journalist and running coach. Last year he placed 12th (1st Vet & 1st Brit) at UTMB. This will be this fourth consecutive UTMB race. Follow him on Instagram, Strava, Twitter and Facebook.
* Check out the homepage for UNDERDOG – a film being made about Damian by Summit Fever Media. “Underdog is a short film about British journalist, father, tea-lover and athlete Damian Hall as he returns to the world’s biggest trail race, the 105-mile Ultra-Tour du Mont-Blanc (UTMB). He’ll be up against the world’s best trail runners, many of whom are full-time athletes, 10 years younger and without the pressures of supporting a family. He’s going to need every ounce of courage, grit and stubbornness to crack the top-10.”