UTMB: The Greatest Show (for Trail Runners)

“We light it up we won’t come down, and the sun can’t stop us now, watchin’ it come true, its takin’ over you, oh, this is the greatest show…”

Ok, so PT Barnum may not have been referencing the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc in “the Greatest Showman”, but he might as well have been. Once a year at the end of August 10,000 runners gather to take part in one of the 7 races that make up the “world summit of trail running”. From the 300k PTL to the 15k YCC youth race, there is something pretty much for everyone, although getting a place in one of the races remains a challenge in itself.

After a few years of trying in the ballot I finally found myself with an entry to the OCC, the “little sister” of the UTMB at 57k and 3500m of ascent/descent, and the first step on my loose long term ambition to do four of the main races in order (OCC-CCC-TDS-UTMB). Five of us from Valley Striders AC arrived in Chamonix in France, one of my favourite places in the world, to attempt a challenge: “the TDS” (Matt and Sarah), “the UTMB” (Steve) and “the Beer Drinking Best Supporter of the Year” (Eirik). There was mixed success…


The TDS (Sur les Traces des Ducs des Savoie)

Not long to stop though as we whisked ourselves quickly away through the Mont Blanc tunnel to Courmayer and the Refugio Elisabetta high up in the Italian mountains, for a night of beer, banter and loud dormitory snoring prior to supporting duties for the TDS the next day. After a morning of incredible views, terrible coffee (yes, in Italy too- shocker I know) and brazen Marmots, we continued our ascent up to the highest point in the race, the Col Chavannes (2603m) to support Matt and Sarah coming through.

Eirik and Steve admire the view at the checkpoint
A big and bold Marmot greets us on the path
Sunset from the Refugio Elisabetta
Me with Mont Blanc and TDS runners in the background

Stunning views of the Mont-Blanc massif, coupled with an equally remarkable glimpse of the helicopter mountain rescue guy on duty at the checkpoint tucking into a beer at 11am kept us entertained! Mental note never to get injured in Italy, best drag yourself over the border to France or Switzerland…

After cheering on Matt, Sarah and the other runners up the long climb, I knew I needed to head to Chamonix pretty soon to register for my race, so Steve and I spent a couple of hours heading back down the valley to Courmayer for a pizza, via a severe soaking from the storm that was forecast. It was at that point when I thought fair play to the TDS runners, only 5 hours into a race that could last over 30 hours and taking a drenching like that so soon. As it happened the worst of the weather missed the runners as they made it down to the next valley, it was Steve and I who took the brunt of it!

Matt and Sarah eventually completed their races in just over 29 and 32 hours respectively. Whilst I often take the mickey by saying that races of that distance are just glorified long walks; with steep ascents (7300m!), rough descents, long distance (121k), altitude, no sleep, changeable weather and a variety of other factors, deep down I am incredibly impressed by anyone who completes them and that was a phenomenal effort by Matt and Sarah.

The OCC (Orsieres- Champex- Chamonix)

My race began from the quiet town of Orsieres in Switzerland, with (I thought) a fairly unnecessarily early coach ride from Chamonix at 5.30am that got us there at 6.45am, a good hour and a half before the race started. After queuing for the toilet for 50 minutes I could quite understand it. Orsieres struck me as a quaint enough village/town but had that familiar Swiss feel of opulence about it, with many houses choosing to use their sprinklers at 6am to water immaculate lawns, despite it raining the night before. Clearly no hose pipe ban going on there.

After a rousing rendition of the UTMB “theme tune” Vangelis Conquest of Paradise (fantastic) mixed with some enforced arm waving to early 90’s Europop (terrible) we were away. The first section of the race zig-zagged through the forest, closely monitored by helicopters up to Champex-Lac. It was in these early stages I reaquainted myself with some familiar “friends”- the European race trekking poles. Aka cheat sticks, aka lethal weapons. When you get poked in the face (an inch from your eye) on a climb when you are at least two metres behind someone and politely point out this fact to them and get no response, I challenge anyone not to be pissed off. Getting annoyed early on in a race doesn’t help though, not least your energy reserves, so you quickly get over it by passing them and giving an even wider berth to anyone else who looks like they are incapable of safely operating a pair of walking sticks.

Back in June 2016 myself and a few fellow Valley Striders undertook a brilliant recce of the full UTMB over 5 days, staying in refuges en-route. There was me “the Trough Guzler”, Clive “the Accident One Mile from Home”, Andreas “the Dramatic Setting”, Simon “the Snow Leopard” and Steve “the Carbonara Millionaire”. It was at Champex-Lac, where the OCC joins the UTMB route (and pretty much follows this for the entire way to the finish, bar a detour from the Col des Montets), that I rekindled some fond memories from that trip. As I passed Steve’s favourite restaurant of said “carbonara gate” fame, this and other memories brought a smile to my face, fantastic for raising morale over a long race.

The OCC can be characterised by three major climbs, the first of which is up to la Giete, through lush greenery and through Bovine, with genuine cowbells a plenty. At this point we peaked above the clouds, and it was fantastic. A steep descent down to the col de la Forclaz and some switchbacks down to Trient where there continued to be amazing support and a well stocked checkpoint. I felt good on the second major climb, up to Catogne, although I was being closely followed by a guy who snorted ridiculously loudly every five seconds. That got rather annoying after a while…

Cracking view. Interesting running garb
Cracking view. Interesting running garb.

The traverse from Catogne crossing the border into France was absolutely stunning, visually one of the highlights of the race for me. Again it brought back fond memories of crossing snow bridges on our recce a few years ago. I spotted a runner in front of me dressed in a random colour combination of clothes reminding me of a packet of skittles, and chuckled to myself wondering what the reaction would be if he rocked up to a traditional English fell race wearing that combo. I started to struggle on the descent down to Vallorcine, my left hip flexor randomly giving me some pain, not ideal when you are faced with some long and unforgiving steep downhills. It is hard to really replicate Alps descents of this nature in Britain, sometimes 1000m in one go over unforgivingly firm terrain.

Although I was picking places up through the field I knew my pace was dropping as I left Vallorcine, on one of those frustratingly gentle rises over easy terrain that you really should be running quite quickly, but really struggle with. I guess the 5 hours of running already in your legs has something to do with it. Not even a magnificent view of the Aiguilles was enough to raise my energy levels sufficiently, so for the first time in any race I have ever done, I reached for my i-pod and headphones. Pressing random play I was delighted to instantly hit Skunk Anansie “Paranoid and Sunburnt”, and to have Skin screaming “weak”, “all in the name of pity” and “rise up” at me was just the jolt I needed to pick my pace up, and couldn’t have been more appropriate lyrics.

I usually reserve music on a run purely for the mundane road commute I do through Leeds, so I was a little disappointed with myself that I had to resort to it during this race, in what is a truly spectacular setting and whilst it did help me lift my pace I did feel like I had somehow cheated and taken the easy option by purposely blocking out the pain and surroundings. Music or not, nothing can really help you on the climb up from Argentiere to the cable car station at Flegere. It is deceptively long, hard, fairly technical, hot and breeze-less. Or as a Yorkshireman might put it: “its a reet bastard”.

Finally at Flegere, I was really looking forward to one of my favourite descents I have done a few times before, through the cafe at La Floria and down to the finish in Chamonix. Although I forgot that I was entering new territory in terms of distance ever run and the way down felt very hard indeed. Descending is usually my forte but a near 900m plunge on already very weary legs was not quite as enjoyable as I remembered it previously. The infamous site of Clive’s little excursion to the dirt close to Floria did lift spirits though- its those little nuggets you have to keep hold of and think back to in times of need! Sorry Clive.

I knew the finishing route into Chamonix, or at least I thought I did, turns out I didn’t. The day before whilst wandering around town I noticed a couple of large gantries going over the roads and wondered what they were for as no-one was on them. Turns out they are reserved especially for runners to go up and down over. Brilliant. I may or may not have let out a profanity at this point. Bridges of doom, I will remember them for next time.

As I ran through the town centre I was amazed at the level of support and the greeting reserved for the runners, with little kids asking for high-fives along the street (which brought emotion and gave me a really warm feeling thinking of my little boy). I finally spotted Steve and Eirik for the first time during the race right by the finish supping on a beer, thanks for your support on the rest of the course lads!

I finished in 7 hr 32 min and was 136th out of 1,484 finishers (1,570 starters). I was pretty pleased with that although disappointed I couldn’t maintain the pace I had for the first 5 hours running. I knew I had pushed myself as much as I could when as I crossed the line I barely had the energy to muster a sentence to Matt, Eirik and Steve other than “I need to sit in the shade and drink some water”. I think I reacted fairly sharply to the question of “why is it you think you are so tired?”, with “er, cos I have pushed myself as hard as I can and that’s why I am absolutely bolloxed, obviously!”. Apologies guys for my crankiness in that first 20 minutes after the race, but at least it was proof I couldn’t have gone much harder!

The overall OCC race was won by Erenjia Jia, the first time a Chinese runner has ever won a UTMB series event. Trail running has exploded as a sport over in China in recent times and that was evident with the number of elite athletes, and indeed mass participation runners and supporters over from China during the UTMB week.  I managed to take a Go-pro video going through the finish in Chamonix, which is hardly Academy Award material but gives an indication of the brilliant level of support reserved for racers. Cracking finishers gilet too.

The UTMB (Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc)

Lets be honest, its the main event isn’t it, and this year was one of the most highly stacked, highly anticipated in its history on both the men’s and women’s side. Elites like Kilian Jornet, Caroline Chaverot, Jim Walmsley, Ryan Sandes……and Steve Dixon all toed the start line. Unfortunately none of the above finished the race, which shows just how tough a challenge it is.

Steve had the dubious honour of being able to say he outlasted Kilian, pulling out after a very commendable 11 hours and 33 miles (given recent injury troubles), whereas the greatest mountain runner of all time had a nasty reaction to a bee sting earlier in the day and took the decision to retire almost halfway through.

The equally elite drinking crew of myself, Matt, Sarah and Eirik did our best to support the runners from the start in Chamonix, which is a sight to behold by the way- an even more unbelievable atmosphere that the earlier races. We then nipped on the train and travelled parallel with the race over to St Gervais, where we took up our position to support along the roadside. When I say the roadside, what I really mean to say is it was a roadside beer garden that had great shelter from the rain, excellent biere and tasty meat and cheese. We were pretty pleased! Matt offered Steve an array of “escargot” when he arrived, understandably I am not quite sure he appreciated the gesture but we did point out we weren’t using them as a metaphor for his running!

Festival atmosphere through the streets of St Gervais awaiting the UTMB runners

My overriding memory of the week is one of the unbelievable support given to the runners and the atmosphere created in what are often fairly small villages and towns, with each really embracing each race. It certainly inspires you to want to toe the start line yourself. In a couple of years time I hope to continue to do so.

UTMB, the greatest show for trail runners?

“Don’t fight it, it’s comin’ for you, runnin’ at ya

It’s only this moment, don’t care what comes after

It’s blindin’, outshin’ anything that you know

Just surrender ’cause you’re callin’ and you wanna go….”

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