Everyone, I hope, has a dream race. Whether it’s one that’s been experienced, or has yet to be experienced, it’s the one you’re daydreaming of when you realise the person who’s talking to you has stopped talking and now expects an answer… and all you can think of saying is, “Would you take trekking poles?” My previous race obsession was The Spine Race, which I’ve done twice. Now it’s UTMB.
The magic four-letter acronym has been in my head every single day since I first let its 10,000m of climb – and another 10,000m of descent – batter my quads like a stampede of really annoyed hippos last year. I’ll attempt the 104-mile mountain race around western Europe’s highest peak, the monstrous Mont Blanc (White Mountain, 4,808m/15,776ft), a second time on August 26th. I know I’m a bit late to the UTMB – or to give it it’s full title Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc – party, but rarely does an hour go by without a flashback from last year’s race.
Four things that make the UTMB so special
There are at least four things that make UTMB so special. Firstly the crowds. The start and the finish in Chamonix are like the London Marathon – the finish even better, because it’s just for you. Families gather round campfires halfway up mountains to cheer on runners way into the night. The check points have more supporters than most UK ultra running finish lines. Everyone you pass says “Allez, allez, allez” (which means “go, go, go”) and “Bon courage” (which means something about courage). Some people seem to prefer races with 20 runners and a crowd consisting of one bored dog. I’m not one of those people.
The course isn’t bad either, following one of the world’s classic mountains trails, the Tour du Mont Blanc, a loop through the French, Italian and Swiss Alps. Last year I watched the sun turn Mont Blanc an ethereal pink in the evening, and blood-orange red in the morning. In between the full moon turned it, and a dragon’s back ring of other snow-capped summits, into a creamy hue.
Who will win this year’s UTMB race?
Thirdly, the depth of field simply isn’t found in any other 100-mile race in the world. Only America’s Western States can really compare for competitiveness and that’s near-impossible to get into because it’s such a small field. UTMB has around 2,500 runners, the best mountain, trail and ultra runners from all over the world, including many from the US.
Indeed, the annual subplot is that though many of the sport’s big names are American, none of them have ever won UTMB (though Rory Bosio has won the women’s race, twice). With Timothy Olson (previously placed 4th), David Laney (3rd in 2015), Seth Swanson (4th in 2015), Zach Miller (2015 CCC – shorter, little sister race to the UTMB – winner), Dylan Bowman, Jason Schlarb and Michael Wardian all on the start list, it’ll be interesting to see if that changes this time.
But maybe a Brit could do well, too? The 2010 winner Jez Bragg is back, but also Andy Symonds, who’s having a barnstorming year with a win at the Lavaredo Ultra Trail and top-five finishes at Transgrancanaria and Transvulcania, as well as US-based Brit Ryan Smith (9th last year) and Paul Giblin (5th at Western States this year). England 100k international Nathan Montague will be worth watching too. In the women’s race the Brits have the extraordinary Jasmin Paris, Nicky Spinks and Sophie Grant (a recent call-up for the GB Trail Running team) to cheer on.
UTMB: Where ultra running is mainstream and its winners are stars
Fourthly, the atmosphere in Chamonix all week – with the UTMB, CCC, TDS, PTL and OCC races taking place – is infectious and brilliant, like the football World Cup and Glastonbury music festival of mountain, trial and ultra running all rolled into one – with less cider and Coldplay (thankfully). Ultra trail running may feel like a niche sport in the UK, but here it’s mainstream. Runners are stars. Loud music plays. There are big crowds. And really big mountains.
I finished 32nd (EDIT: 31st, following the disqualification on July 19 of Gonzalo Calisto who failed an anti-doping test after finishing 5th in the race) at my first UTMB, way exceeding my expectations, but still some five hours behind the winner. I know I can do a bit better, but I’m avoiding giving myself specific targets, to try and keep a positive mindset when my legs start screaming. I can’t imagine being top 10, or even top 20 really. I just think I can do a bit better. I just want to finish in the daylight on Saturday.
Now I know what’s in store, I’ve been training more specifically for it. The hills where I live in the Cotswolds rarely go beyond 50m, while UTMB has numerous climbs over 500m. So I’m getting on a treadmill (yuk) and making regular trips to get up and down steeper stuff in Wales. Hopefully running a Fastest Known Time (FKT) along the 630-mile South West Coast Path in May has helped strengthen me rather than destroy me. I feel great, but only in going up and down some ridiculous-sized Alps will I learn he truth.
Trail Talon 275 the perfect shoe for running the UTMB
The right kit is important too and it’s probably more about comfort and familiarity than anything else – certainly with footwear and a vest pack, the two key choices. inov-8’s new Trail Talon 275 are likely to be my running shoe of choice. They’re like my favourites, the Terraclaw 250, but with more cushioning, plus they also breathe well and offer good comfort. As for the vest pack, I’ll likely go with the Race Ultra 10 Boa (if I want to use a hydration bladder) or the smaller, and yes I can get all the mandatory kit in it, Race Ultra 5 (if I decide to go with soft flasks instead of a hydration bladder).
But even if kit and fitness are spot on, there are so many factors to 100 milers, that something else unforeseen may well go wrong. The spinning plates aspect is part of what I love about longer races. And, yes, I will be taking trekking poles.