The UTMB, or Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc to give it its Sunday name, is an ultra trail running event and is considered by a lot of people as the pinnacle of the ultra running calendar. I can see why now.
A couple of weeks ago I took part in the TDS race, or the Sur la Trace des Ducs du Savoie. This is a 119km ultra which starts in Courmayeur in Italy and proceeds over mountain passes around the south of the Mont Blanc massif, ultimately ending in the town center of Chamonix. Between those two points lie approximately 7200m of mountains to get up and over and I can now confirm that 7200m is a lot of mountains to get over. Especially when the temperature gets up to 35 degrees Centigrade.
Chamonix – What’s not to love?
As you might have worked out by now, this monster of a race is pretty damn brutal. I hadn’t underestimated it; I was clear at the start line about what lay ahead, it’s just the actuality of running it that kicks you in the teeth and makes you realise how much of a miserable, pathetic runner you really are. This mistress treats you mean and doesn’t allow you time to beg for mercy.
There are five other races in the whole UTMB event, the YCC, the OCC, the CCC, the PTL (beware, there be maniacs here) and then the Grandfather of them all, the actual UTMB. The last two do full laps around Mont Blanc, the UTMB over 170km and the PTL in a mega extended loop taking in an unfathomable 280+km with over 24,000m of elevation. The TDS looks like a school sports day dads race in comparison. The other races, YCC (Youth), OCC and CCC all cover a segment of the full lap around the mountain, often with some detours to put some particular mountain passes in your way.
Before I got to Chamonix, I knew this whole event was big but I hadn’t appreciated how big it was. I am certain there are better\bigger\more interesting\less commercial races out there. Over the past couple of years I’ve been running I’ve heard people both complaining about UTMB and gushing over it. The complaints are typically about how the organisers charge other races to be qualifying races. I can see the point here, why should small, local races fund this huge, well sponsored, international event? However, now I’ve taken part, I can fully appreciate how something this big must take an enormous amount of money to put on. I doubt very much if whoever is behind UTMB makes a lot of money from it. The overheads must be huge, but regardless, they put on a tremendous show and I don’t mind if some of my entry fee from other races I participate in goes towards it as long as I get the change to take part.
As I mentioned in my last post, we took a couple of weeks holiday around the race which gave me some time before hand to run some parts of the route, but also to settle in to being there and getting my head into race mode. On paper, it might not look like it did much for me, but I know from my experience in the race, it absolutely did. More on that later.
My training since the WHW race has been shit. There is no other way to describe it. My longest run was 19km, I was lucky if I could run 30-40km a week, it was just about as bad as it could be. Family life was at full speed and my job was in overdrive consuming any available time. Consequently, with a week and a half before the race start from the time we arrived in Chamonix, I wanted to get out as much as possible and at the same time, get some hills under my legs. I’ve found that I’m generally pretty good going up and down hills. Not good as in fast, but good as in consistent and persistent. Think diesel engine rather than Ferrari.
So off I went. First morning I headed out from the chalet we were renting and headed up the hill towards La Jonction. This is where a glacier splits in two around a spit of land. It’s a steep, long climb straight up with some spectacular views. I set off just after 5am and managed to clear the path of spiders cobwebs for everyone else heading up this popular path during the rest of the day. At one point I seriously thought they might find me cocooned in spiders web on the trail it was so bad.
Sunrise heading up to La Jonction
Next morning I headed out towards Les Contamine. Just before the town there is a little hamlet called Bionnassay that sits on the side of the hill which is the final climb in the TDS race; the Col du Tricot. I ran around the hill from Bionnassay, heading for a place called Le Truc. This is a meadow area sandwiched between two hills, off in one direction is Les Contamines and the other goes over Col du Tricot towards Bellevue. I explored up and over both to get some more distance and climbing in, but more importantly to see as much of the trail as possible. There was every chance I was going to be here in darkness in the race, so it would help to feel something familiar was my belief.
Col du Tricot from Le Truc
Next day, another 5am start, this time heading up past Les Contamines to Notre Dame de la Gorge. From here I headed up the hill following the route up to Col du Joly. This is one of the big CP’s in the race and was almost certainly going to be in the night for me. From here I continued along the route to what is the end of the most remote section of the race which emerges under a place called Tete de la Cicle. This run turned out to be a huge help in the end.
Race map showing Col du Joly and the route heading down to Tete de la Cicle
With all this covered, I now knew almost every km of the race from Col du Joly, which is about the last 35km. After that, it was time to relax for a couple of days. We headed through the Mont Blanc tunnel one day, partly to enjoy visiting Courmayeur, but also to allow me to see the start and the first hill. The town is beautiful and I much preferred it to Chamonix which is too commercial for me. The first hill looked straight forward enough, but with it I also recognised that it was probably the type of hill I could get sucked into running too fast, so I was glad I’d seen it before the start.
Courmayeur with Col Checroit, first climb in the TDS, being the dip to the right of the ridge line.
After that, all that was left was registration. It takes place in the sports center in Chamonix and is incredibly well organised. You have to show a significant pack of mandatory kit, after which you get all your race info and an opportunity for your first race photo.
Queueing to register
Mandatory kit check
At 3:45am the next morning, it was time to board a coach in Chamonix and head through the tunnel to Italy and the start line. I bumped into a couple of other runners from Scotland, Ross and Norrie and we hung around together waiting for the start.
Nervous pre-race selfie
Before long, ‘that’ music started up, the maniac French announcer for the UTMB finally exploded and we were off.
This is a long race so to try to even begin to describe it, I’m going to have to break it up into some manageable chunks. These reflect how I was approaching it mentally and, as it turned out, they segmented how I was feeling on the day.
Stage 1: Courmayeur to Bourg Saint Maurice
From the start line you run up the main street in Courmayeur before turning down the hill, passing under the main road and then starting the climb up to the first Col; the Col Checrouit. Running through the town at 6am was pretty special. The crowds were amazing and gave me a spring in my step. I’d planned to set off at a steady jog and generally managed to achieve this. After a couple of minutes, I realised I’d pulled away from Ross and Norrie but they would soon catch me up once the field opened up again. Everything I’d read before the race told me it was a real bottle neck on the first couple of climbs and I was determined not to get pinned towards the back of the field because I didn’t make it to the narrow trails before the bulk of the race did. As it turned out, the paths are pretty broad in the first section and there is plenty of time to find your natural position in the race. A lesson for future races I suspect.
Sunrise over Val d’Aosta
Once we had escaped the town, the tranquillity of the early morning hit you and we were treated to a spectacular sunrise which lit up the Val d’aosta which stretched off behind us as we went over the first hill. I don’t remember much detail from this section but I remember hitting the first water stop and feeling pretty good. This was about two thirds of the way up the first climb and after this the trail seemed to flatten out a bit before a short decent down into the next valley.
I got a little disoriented at this point as the route profile obviously smoothed out a lot of the race. This is good for having a glance at where you are going, but in the race when you expect a steady climb\decent pattern it screws with your mind a bit I found. Eventually we got to Lac Combal and the first main check point. I got my first introduction to the array of treats on offer. I grabbed some dried fruit, some biscuits and a cup of coke before filling my water bottles and heading on.
Immediately after the CP is a big climb and it was daunting to see the snake of people going up the hill. It really showed the scale of the hill in front of you when you see the tiny ants zig-zagging their way up the switch back trails. An hour later and lots of muttering and I was stretching out at the top and admiring the view back towards Mont Blanc.
Col Chavannes with Mont Blanc behind and smiles because it was over
From the top of this Col, there was a long sweeping downhill section along what I’d describe as a Land Rover track. It took probably the best part of an hour to descend this and by now, the sun was up and I was starting to feel the heat playing a part. I’d known before the race that it was going to get hot and at the start line, Monica the English speaking announcer of UTMB had said that as we went from the Col petit St Bernard down into Bourg St Maurice, it would be like descending into an oven. She wasn’t wrong.
I remember arriving at Bourg St Maurice feeling beaten up. I don’t remember much about the trail between the Land Rover track and there, but I do remember one last climb which went over a reasonable sized hump in the landscape. It was covered in a thick mangrove like plant and everyone was battling to step through it, compounded by the steepness of the switch backs which made their way up to the top. By the time I hit the CP at the Col I was done. I bumped into Ross again and we both simply used a whole range of swear words to describe the previous 4 hours. Looking back, I don’t remember one thing taking its toll on me, it was just a combination of some horrendously steep hills and an increasing temperature. Hydration wise I felt like I was doing pretty well, but again in hindsight, I probably could of forced myself to drink more and I might have felt better.
From the Col it was another huge descent down into Seez and then Bourg St Maurice and a big checkpoint and milestone in the race. The descent took me a couple of hours and Monica had been spot on. By the time I reached the village at the bottom of the hill, the hosepipes that had been left out were being put to good use everytime I passed one. On the way down, every water trough and stream had a swarm of runners around it, dousing themselves in water to try and lower their body temperature. It was getting tough to keep moving.
In the CP I caught up with Ross again who was still ahead of me and Norrie caught me up after his more sensible and slower start to the race. On the way in to the CP I’d considered giving it all up. I was feeling terrible but I figured I should just take 15 minutes, have some food and see how I felt. I knew that after the CP there was the biggest climb of the race and I was hitting it at exactly the wrong time of day. My race plan had me at this CP at 13:52 but I was there an hour later at 14:34. That wasn’t so terrible given I was suffering in the heat and feeling terrible. The 24 hour finish time might still be achievable I thought. The only thing to do was give it a go, so I left the CP.
Stage 2: Bourg St Maurice to Cormet de Roselend
In the week before the race, I’d met Paul Giblin on a run and we were chatting about each others races. He described the TDS as a race that he had gone out of his way to eliminate the memory of some of the climbs from his memory; I should have taken heed of such a great runners experience.
The climb out of the Bourg turned what could be an enjoyable race into a death march for me. It was horrible. On a cooler day, with fresher legs I would probably love it. It isn’t actually all that steep compared to some hills, but it is long and relentless and on a hot day there is nowhere to hide the higher you climbed.
Chillin in the shade
As soon as I set off I felt terrible. Nothing in particular, just sheer exhaustion. And I wasn’t alone. There was a steady stream of people heading back to the CP, presumably to call it a day. They all had that resolute look in their eyes and nobody in their right mind would consider going back down a hill like that to come back up it. Back at the GP in the Bourg, the retirement queue was bigger than the one for the food. Someone told me later that something like 40% of the race dropped out in total and most of that was at the CP I’d just passed through.
I knew I wasn’t going to make it if I tried to push on. My heart rate was sky high even just standing up, I worked out that my body was struggling to keep things together due to tiredness and the heat. It was working so hard the last thing it needed was me gee’ing it on up a bloody great big hill. So I listened and found some shade under whatever tree’s I could find. Inch by inch I shuffled up that hill. I remembered from my race prep that there was a water stop half way up at the fort, but before then there was nothing, so I’d filled all my water bottles up meaning I had two litres with me. I had to make it last until the fort so it was little and often. Thankfully it worked.
By the time the fort came and went, the sun was starting to disappear behind the hill. I reached the timing point at the fort at 18:39. It had taken me 4 hours to crawl half way up the hill. This really wasn’t going to plan now. My target was to reach the Passeur de Praglonan which is the high point of the climb, at 17:50. This really, really wasn’t going well. In my first CP’s I’d been in positions in the low 300’s. By the time I reached the fort, I was in 1064th position. I didn’t know this at the time, but I somehow felt it given how many people had gone past me while I chilled in the shade. I was convinced Ross and Norrie were hours ahead of me by now and I was going to struggle to make the cut off times.
Last section up to Passeur Praglonan – see the tiny dots of people snaking their way up from bottom left to top right
But then something happened. The sun went down. I was surrounded by people with tanned skins who looked like they were at home in warm places, but now their god that they worshipped had left for the night and the colder it got, the more I felt human again. Time to start moving. Sadly, just as I was realising this, I stupidly put my foot in a divot and rolled my ankle. It was somewhere near the Col before the Passeur summit, and I swore loud enough they probably heard me all the way up there. A minute sitting on a rock and somehow it felt ok again. On we go.
The trail dipped again before reaching the summit. Yet another familiar long snake of people traced the route up zig zag paths and eventually I was at the high point of the race. It was 20:37 when I got there, almost 3 hrs behind plan. The light was sinking fast now and all that was between me and a hot meal at the next CP was a technical descent on some scree and a short via ferrata like section. By the time I got to the bottom, the light was low enough to require head torches. This was a minor victory for me. In my race prep I’d heard about this short technical drop down the hill and was determined to do it in day light. I knew that if I did that, I would likely still finish in the 24-28hr time rage. I started to feel good about things again.
Looking back up to Passeur Pralognan and the zig-zag of head torches making their way down
The trail to Cormet de Roselend eventually follows a fairly flat section. I’d popped a gel just before hitting this and had enjoyed about 45 mins of downhill running leading up to it. By now I was passing people and I knew I must be clawing some places back. I also knew that ahead of me, was the best little pasta restaurant in the Alps.
The Pasta Party at the CP really couldn’t have come at a better time. I was starving. The huge climb followed by a reasonably fast descent had taken its toll, however, looking around there were a lot of people who looked to be feeling worse than me. It was 21:45 at night and I was now 3 hrs behind my 24hr race plan. Ah well. After another helping of pasta, a change of socks and shirt from the one drop bag that you get in the race, I reloaded my gels and set off again into the night. Next stop, Col du Joly!
Stage 3: Cormet de Roselend to Les Contamines
This section is the most remote of the race. You seem to pass through some deep ravines and over some small Col’s, much of which I don’t remember. One strange memory I do have though is off some couples who were running together near by me. I would get stuck behind them going up or down some trail and one or both of the couple would be chattering away non stop in Spanish or Portuguese. In my mind I was wondering what they were saying and how they had so much energy and conversation to keep talking. By this point it was about 20 hours into the race and everyone else was silent. God knows what they were on about, I imagined it was the woman lambasting the bloke for suggesting they do this stupid bloody race, and don’t you ever suggest a holiday like this again. It certainly didn’t sound like they were enjoying themselves.
I remember thinking to myself to just keep moving. My main aim was to get to within visual distance of Col du Joly. That was the point where I knew the entire rest of the race and I knew it would lift my spirits. To get to Col du Joly though, there was one last difficult section to cross below a rocky outcrop. The trail seemed to wind its way up much higher than I’d anticipated and it was hard work trying to get over some steep, scree covered stepped trails. Eventually I hit a familiar section that I’d ran to in my pre-race run there and the adrenalin kicked in.
Cold du Joly offered an 80’s disco feel as part of its welcome, as well as more chicken noodle soup with chunks of cheese in it, which had become my staple food sour by now. Sitting finishing a cup of tea and a biscuit that I treated myself to, Ross came wandering into the CP. I was shocked and almost fell off my chair. I was convinced he’d be hours ahead by now and possibly even finished! Turns out the climb had half killed him too and he took the opportunity of a nap at Cormet Roselend. I was happy to know he was still in the race and after a quick chat, I set off into the night.
In my head, I knew what came next all the way to Les Contamines. What I hadn’t accounted for was that I could run the whole way, which is exactly what I did. At Col du Joly I was in 736th place, by Contamines I was 662th and it was 5am in the morning. My 24hr target was well and truly blown, but I knew I would finish from here, I just wasn’t sure how long it would take.
Stage 4: Les Contamines to Chamonix
From Les Contamines the route takes you up and over a hill to Le Truc and then there was just the small matter of Col du Tricot to take on. I’d read in Richard Bannisters blog that this Col was like trying to get over a brick wall at the end of the race. My recce before hand meant that I knew what it was like and, whilst it was tough, it was relatively short compared to some of the other climbs. I made sure I had a good feed and took a few minutes to pull myself together in Les Contamines, I also had a brief interaction with a French public toilet (aka a hole in the ground) which almost ended my race. Have you ever tried to perform a squat over a toilet at 100km in a race? No? I advise you not to try it!
Refreshed, I set off out from the CP and up the first climb to Chalet du Truc. I’d stopped here on my recce for a coffee that was served French breakfast style in a huge bowl and I half wondered if they were open now and I might have another bowl full. They weren’t, so my fate was sealed and it was on to Col du Tricot. I knew this was going to hurt, so I popped a gel, took a good drink of water and set off up the last big hill of the race. It was as tough as I expected, but not as tough as some others were finding it. I got into a dogged mindset and just kept moving and pushed up to the top. From the last CP to the top of the Col I’d gained another 100 places and was now into the 500’s. It felt good and I knew there was nothing ahead of me that was all that tough.
Col du Tricot – A welcome sight
Next was a descent down to a Sherpa bridge across the tip of a melting glacier. I had the place to myself when I arrived and enjoyed the cool damp early morning air coming off the torrent which passed under the bridge. The sun was starting to warm up again and it felt strange to be in my first race that had gone over 24 hours.
Bridge over the Bionnassay Glacier torrent
There was a short pull up to Bellevue from here and as I topped out, it felt like walking out of the darkness and into the sunshine again. It was warm and people were starting to reappear on the route to cheer us on. The drop down into Les Houches felt a lot longer than I expected and I found myself going faster and faster just to get it over with. I was passing people regularly now and knew I was making ground, although any hopes of hitting my target finish time or position were long gone, I simply wanted to finish strong now and get to Chamonix and end the ordeal.
Eventually the CP at Les Houches came and went. Nobody was hanging around here, it was a comparatively flat 8km to the finish in Chamonix and all anyone wanted to do was get there. The route wound its way down through the town and eventually crossed the river and turned right towards Chamonix.
Along the trail runners were well strung out. Some were starting to pick up the pace, others were obviously just walking to the finish, content they’d done enough. I put in a decent last 5km to make a decent run of it and picked up some more places. Along the trail, Nichola and William had come down to meet me with the lady we were renting a chalet from. It was better than the feeling at the finish line to see them waiting for me under the trees. I hadn’t realised how low I’d felt through the race until I saw them stood at the side of the trail and my spirits lifted. After a quick hug and chat, I was off with a spring in my step.
Before long, the edge of Chamonix was ahead of me and the run along the main street produced one of the best feelings I’ve had in a race finish. It was 10:40 in the morning and the place was packed. As I ran along the street, the crowds parted and everyone was cheering and clapping you to the finish. It created a huge sense of achievement and respect and in that instant made you want to come back and do it all again next year.
Just before the finish I heard my name being shouted by Giles Ruck, one of the other crazy runners from Scotland taking part in the UTMB later in the week. He was stood with a group of guys I’d met earlier in the week who had come out to see myself and Ross who wasn’t far behind finish. It was wonderful to high five everyone and say hello. Then a little further on two of the guys from Falkland Trail Runners who were out to enjoy the whole UTMB experience shouted me over. More hugs, more amazing feeling to see friends cheering you on so far away from home. All that was left was a short dash to the finish line.
It was strange crossing the line. The biggest race so far and it was over. Nichola and William eventually found me amongst the crowd and my friends came over to congratulate me and get the finish line stories of how horrible it was and how I’d never do it again.
As well as the goody bag you get at registration, every finisher gets a gilet. In previous years, these have been fashion items and a mark of respect for completing such a tough challenge. Sadly, this years sponsors appear to have taken inspiration from fetish nights at their local sex club as the gilet is made from some perverse looking PVC like material. Everyone I met commented on how crap they looked compared to previous years and I did wonder if I’d have kept going knowing that was my prize for completion!
So that was it. I’d completed the UTMB TDS 2016 in 28h 46m 38s and ended up in 525th place overall. I was really happy with how the second half of the race had gone and how well I’d managed to motivate myself to keep going and to get stronger as others were starting to suffer. I think my approach on the big climb felt wrong at the time, but if I hadn’t taken so much time to rest on the way up, I might not have finished the race.
Lessons to take away
My nutrition strategy worked well. I moved away from Tailwind and went with gels and food from checkpoints. In the WHW race I’d made the mistake of not eating enough at every opportunity and my race suffered, I made sure in TDS that I was taking time at CP’s to refuel and rehydrate well before moving on. It worked well. The gels I felt like I got right too, I was thinking about what was ahead of my and when I needed to take one so it kicked in at the right time. I had to think about it because you had to carry everything you used on you through the race, which meant if I attacked my gels too early I’d run out in some remote place and that would be bad. I also became accustomed to the salty noodle soup. In the end, it was pretty much all I was eating at the CP’s and it seemed to work brilliantly with a piece of bread or two.
Knowing the route really, really helps me to do well. I’d taken a lot of time to study maps of the race and also get out there early to familiarise myself both with segments of the route, but also the type of trail. It made a huge difference for me and I felt prepared. I always knew what was coming next and that helped me feel positive, even when I knew the next section would be difficult.
Strength training helps me climb hills. It seems obvious but it isn’t always easy to maintain the focus. I had been doing a lot of squats and lunges this year to build hip and leg strength and I never felt that those areas were letting me down.
Not enough training doesn’t mean you can’t complete a race. If I would have written down what I’d have liked to do before this race, it would have been a long list of training runs in mountainous areas. I didn’t get that, yet I did ok and was happy overall with how the race went. I remember thinking a lot during the 28 hours that actually, this is more about enjoying myself in the mountains, rather than competing against others. I love running in this type of environment and no matter how well I do, I need to simply enjoy it for the experience. I felt like I did this in TDS.
Naturally, since the race my mind has swung from never wanting to run again, all the way to wanting to train like a demon and going back next year and knocking 10 hours off my time. I suspect the reality will be somewhere between the two, but I would go back and run a UTMB race again in a heart beat. I’ve been looking at how I might gain enough points for the full UTMB as the experience of seeing them start and finish was amazing. A friend of mine, Giles Ruck who is the head of Foundation Scotland, the good people behind the Caledonian Challenge, he completed UTMB and I was lucky enough to catch him finishing before we left Chamonix for the airport. The emotion and sensation of finishing such an enormous race was so obvious and inspiring. I can’t imagine myself ever not wanting to experience that, so watch out UTMB, I’m coming to get you!
Why would you not want to experience this feeling? – Giles Ruck finishing UTMB in style
I managed to get into Chamonix to see the winners of UTMB coming in. It was yet another amazing experience that I am so happy to have witnessed. Seeing these super human individuals who have achieved so much is so awe inspiring and encourages me to think about what’s possible. I don’t have the ability (or age!) to get up to their levels, but their dedication to doing well and working hard to achieve what they achieve inspires me and makes me realise what I enjoy about running.
After two weeks in the alps, it was time to head home and leave the big mountains behind. We had a great time and enjoyed some beautiful weather. The whole UTMB event is simply amazing and has to be experienced to be appreciated in my view. The organisers do an amazing job of making it look easy to put on this big running festival but I can imagine it takes an enormous effort to achieve. Bravo UTMB and thank you!
Leaving the mountains behind as we head to Geneva