Race Report - 2018 Ultra-Trail Du Mont-Blanc 105 Mile

9/02/2018 01:54:00 AM

Even though I had already completed this bucket list race 3 years earlier in 2015, I could not resist another trip around the Mont Blanc massif. If you've ever been to this area you would understand and if you haven't been and are passionate about adventure and mountain running, Chamonix is nothing short of the world's mecca of trail and mountain running. Sure, there are other contenders in the Alps, but Chamonix and it's now famous Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc and its weeklong celebration of trail and ultra running with no less than 7 distance events is the clear front runner. UTMB boasts 33,000ft of vertical gain over 105 miles of alpine mountain running.
In fact, people refer to UTMB as the Tour de France of Ultrarunning and rightfully so. It is hard to describe the feeling that rush through your body as you enter one village after another after having spent hours climbing up and down the surrounding peaks and be greeted by thousands of enthusiastic supporters cheering you on with rattles and child sized cowbells like you are indeed about to win the Tour de France. Or the feeling you get when, after climbing 3000 vertical feet in the middle of the night and finally reaching the peak, you are once again cheered by spectators with giant cowbells and you wonder, how did they get up here? Why are they up here in the middle of the night? The feelings  one experiences are indescribable. 
It is for these reasons and for the sheer beauty I experienced in 2015 that I wanted to come back, no, I had to come back. This time like last time, it would be a bit of a family affair. in 2015, my better half was able to set aside some vacation time to join me and support me for all 39 hours it took me to circumvent Mont Blanc and finish the race. This time, I was able to recruit my brother Andy, who would fly in from Germany to hand out and be my crew. I hadn't spent time with him in a long time, so I was really looking forward this this week, also called race week in Chamonix.
I met up with my brother in Zurich as be both arrived on different planes from different places, he from Hamburg, Germany and I from Huntsville, Alabama, USA. I had rented a car for the week as I felt it would be much easier to get around. After some initial issues with my original reservation, we finally got on the road to Zermatt, Switzerland, where I had planned to participate in a final tuneup race, the Matterhorn Ultraks 50K, but that journey has been described already in another race report. On Monday morning, we left Zermatt for the 2 hour drive to Chamonix. I had reserved a pretty unique AirBNB and I could not wait to see if in person.
We arrived in Chamonix a bit earlier than initially planned, but our AirBNB hosts were very accommodating. We found the place right away, it sat just below the lift to Brevent just 500m from the start/finish area of the UTMB, but not on the actual course, so we would be able to sleep. Like I said, race week is one huge party with runners essentially arriving day and night throughout the week.
Our AirBNB was actually a remodeled wooden train car, probably the coolest place I've ever stayed in, well, almost. The hut on the side of an active volcano in Nicaragua was probably slightly more unique. However, this place was nothing short of amazing, queen sized bed, bathroom, shower, kitchen, dining table, couch, TV, wifi, everything we could possibly need during our weeklong stay.
Pierre and Veronique were gracious and extremely helpful hosts and after a quick tour of our new "home", we headed to the center of town to check things out. I remembered the location of every important venue, so we just went ahead and picked up some basic groceries first. After that, we explored some more before heading back to our caboose.
I pretty much spent the week leading up to the race meeting friends for coffee and dinner, getting my race kit in order, picking up my race bib and taking car of other logistical things. I had been here before, so I wasn't as nervous, initially. That changed pretty quickly on race day, when we received some unwelcome news just 4 hours before the 6PM race start.
I had completed my mandatory gear check with flying colors during the bib pickup two days earlier. There was also a separate mandatory gear list for inclement weather conditions, bot foe extremely hot and extremely cold conditions, but since the weather and the forecast had been fantastic all week, we were not required to present the additional mandatory kit for these conditions. My Thursday evening, I had packed my gear in my 12l Salomon vest and I was ready to go.
On race morning, I met my buddy Brian Bell for coffee to chat about his TDS finish a day earlier and about my impending race. We were talking about the course reruote that had become necessary due to a deadly rockfall just 2 days earlier on the final climb of the course to Tete Aux Vents. The course had seen some rain and we were discussing shoe choices. In fact, I became so concerned I picked up an extra pair of my preferred Altra Lone Peak 4.0 in town, just to have a dry air to change into later on in the race. However, at no time did we discuss the possibility of a dramatic change in weather, so I was extremely surprised when I received an email from the race organization just 4 hours prior to the race informing us that we were required to pack the mandatory winter kit along with the other mandatory gear. Apparently, the forecast now called for rain for the next 24 hours along with temps as low as -10 celsius or 14 degrees Fahrenheit. Quite the change from the 75-80 degrees Fahrenheit we'd been experiencing all week.
A little bit of stress set in as I struggled to decide exactly what extra pieces of gear to pack. I had brought different additional layers and jackets that would fulfill the mandatory requirements, so now I had to make some tough choices. Ultimately, I found an appropriate balance between weight and function and I was lucky to be able to hand the rest of the gear to my brother in case I needed another change at a later stage of the race.
I laid down for most of the midday trying to get some rest. Sleep was impossible, so the next best thing was to just rest my body. About 3 hours before the start, at 4PM I started to tape my feet, inside of my big toes, inside of the balls of my feet and the edges of both of my heels. I use KT tape as it allows for some stretch as I pull it around the corners or edges of my heels, preventing any creases in the tape, which would ultimately cause friction blisters, which is why I was taping my feet in the first place.
I threw on my race kit, opting against my racing singlet and instead wearing a long sleeve mid layer along with a rain jacket and shorts. I would keep waterproof gloves easily accessible as cold hands are another common issue for me, especially at higher mountain altitudes.
Since I still had to drop off my drop bag for the mile 48 aid station in Courmayeur at the collection drop off spot at the local gym near the race start, we decided to leave the comfort of our caboose around 4PM. It was raining pretty steadily at this point. We dropped off my bag and now had about 90 minutes of time to kill before the race start. I had no desire to stay out in the rain any longer than necessary, so we did like the French do. We found a cafe near the start and ordered a couple of lattes to stay both warm and dry.
With about 45 minutes to go, I lined up at the race start in the big market square. The front area is roped off to allow space for the elite field of runners and behind that it's everyone for themselves. Please lined up hours before the start and while I very vividly remembered the frustration of being stuck behind runners for almost 40 miles, I also remembered how badly I suffered later on and that it never hurts to start slow. So I was perfectly content to line up in the very back, I mean the very back. The only folks behind me were spectators. I took in the atmosphere and as the actual race start approached, I was eager to get started. I had come up with some A,B, and C goals, but at the end of the day, my goal in a 100 mile race is always to finish, no more no less. To finish is to succeed. Don't believe me? Check the list of DNFs from this year alone, lots of carnage across the board. Nearly 800 runners out of a total of 2500 runners did not finish.
If you want to be technical about it, I actually beat Kilian, Jim, Zack and a host of other elites that abandoned the race for a multitude of reasons, some of them due to going out too hard, some of them due to unfortunate injuries and falls. All that to say, anything can happen over the course of 100 miles and when you train long and hard for these events, the main goal should always be first and foremost to finish. At least that's what I believe.
As the race got started, the giant throng of runners slowly snaked its way through the narrow streets of Chamonix. Runners were excited, spectactors were excited, video cameras and flashing everywhere. There wasn't a single empty spectator spot anywhere along the course for nearly all of 
in Chamonix. these images would be repeated in just about every village we passed through for the most part, day or night.

I settled into my perceived easy pace pretty quickly. It required me to pass a runner here or there, but for the most part, the early stages were uneventful. The miles ticked by quickly and I was mostly concerned with the slippery and muddy terrain on the downhills. My focus was going to be on my hydration and nutrition plan early on as I knew that it could be an issue later on in the race. 
Without giving a blow by blow, the first 50K and even 50M went by without any issues. No hotspots, no hydration issues. My brother met me at 30k and 50M providing a much appreciated mental lift. At Courmayeur, I decided to change everything but my shoes and socks. After having been wet for 13 hours, it felt great to out on some dry clothes. I was hoping that it would stay dry at least for the time being. It was challenging to keep my temperature regulated, as it was warm in the valleys and bitter cold at the higher altitudes. However, I prefer to be warm and sweaty over cold and dry, so I kept opting for an extra layer for most of the race.
Things continued without any serious issues, but the climb out of Courmayeur to Refuge Bonatti was the first one that felt challenging. Things didn't get easier after that. I continued to move pretty well and I was in good spirits the entire time, but slowly my feet were starting to hurt a little. I'm happy to report that I never developed any blisters, but the pain continued to increase, making the downhills the most challenging part as the race went on. 
Thankfully, I connected with a British expat from the Netherlands and we continued on together for the remainder of the race. We still had high hopes of finishing in under 34 hours but as we started the final (newly added) to last climb to replace the rerouted climb to Tete Aux Vent, these thoughts were fleeting fast. This was the third straight up vertical 500m climb after two 1000m climbs in just the last 20k and it was wearing us down. We were questioning not our sanity, but the thoughts of the race directors when designing the final third of this course. There was some cursing as well, but ultimately we knew were were getting it done, just not as fast as initially hoped. In fact, my A goal (still realistic at mile 48) and my B goal (still realistic until the final 2 climbs) had passed and there was only the C goal and the "just finish" goal left. Sometimes, it's a good idea to have multiple goals. While it may allow some to adjust their goals to easily, I like it because it means i'm not putting all eggs in one basket. I am able to stay in the race mentally as I haven't failed until I drop from a race. A backup goal is very important to me in 100 milers.
There was still some silver lining. As Alan and I made our way down from La Flegere, the final 10K descent to the finish, we knew we'd still finish the race in the dark of the second night and that was a victory in and of itself for me. We cruised to the finish, cursing the occasional root and rock on the final switchbacks down to Chamonix, but when we hit the pavement, all of that was quickly forgotten.
We crossed the finish line to the cheers of our personal supporters, the only drawback to finishing at 5AM in the morning:-) Other spectators were still in bed recovering from the party of the previous night. Another reason to not rush to the finish as the latest finishers usually have the biggest crowds on Sunday afternoon. Once again, this race was everything I had hoped for and more. I cursed it more than once and swore to never run again. Never has already been replaced by "maybe in a couple of years". Chamonix, its people and the Mont Blanc massif have a special place in my heart and my life. If you ever question why you trail run, come to Chamonix and you will never question it again, ever.
For me, it was made even more special because my brother joined my on this, my second journey around this magnificent mountain. I'm glad I got to spend this time with him and I'm sure he enjoyed it almost as much as me, even though he's never worn a pair of running shoes just to run in them:-) 
Please comment below, if you are interested in the mandatory gear an other gear I used and I will gladly share it.










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4 comments

  1. Amazing! Congrats. I am like you, hate to be cold when I run. What layers did you use?

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  2. I wore a "Compressport 3D Thermo Ultralight Racing Hoodie" as my base layer which also fulfilled the 190g mandatory long sleeve layer requirement. Over it I wore the "Ultimate Direction Ultra Jacket", a jacket that also fulfilled the mandatory waterproof rain jacket requirement. I wore this combination for 90% of my run.

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  3. Excellent Job UK!! And stunningly beautiful location. I did not think about it seriously but now your write up has put this on my bucket list! Also, I would enjoy seeing your gear list and what you felt like was most essential? Thanks for doing such a great write up! Andy (Altra Red Team)

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  4. Andy, you can find my list and comment here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1Lozb1NQXDP30Y4sSa6IaJPjoeTOEWnps/view?usp=sharing To be honest, since you must carry your mandatory gear anyway, it serves you well to select the best (tested) gear possible and always weight the actual gear weight and its quality/effeciveness to do its job. I felt like all of my gear was both lightweight and functional. The logistics of the race (ie gear planning) took more time than the actual training, but thats definitely art of the fun for me. I may try to write about my gear choices or my favorite piece of gear soon.

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