Ultra Trail Du Mont Blanc (2014) - Race Report
Welcome to the French Alps! (Photo from Planpraz)
I could use a lot of excuses to explain my poor performance at UTMB this year. For example, I could say that I was not totally recovered from AC100 3 weeks prior, or that I was still jet-lagged from travelling to France. But none of that would be totally honest. The simple truth is that UTMB is a monster and that I was not prepared at all for what it had to offer me. This course is nothing like what you can find in your backyard (well except maybe in you live somewhere in Colorado), and excelling at it requires some very specific preparation.
Since I started ultra-running, almost 2 years ago now, UTMB has always been a race I wanted to give a try. Not only it starts and ends in my home-country, but also, judging by all the photos and videos about the race, the landscapes you run through look breathtaking (SPOILER ALERT: they really ARE, and much more!!). So, when my name showed up on the UTMB starting runners list the day after the lottery, my excitement was hard to contain. I was set to run Angeles Crest 100 few weeks before, so I figured out that this was perfect timing and that all the training I would put for AC100 would serve me well for UTMB. If only I had known …
My parents and I arrived in Chamonix the Tuesday before the race (the race starts on Friday evening).
The Mont Blanc is always looking at you in Chamonix
I had heard about the electric atmosphere in Chamonix during the UTMB week, and let me tell you that all the hype is true and more! This town, at this time of the year, is Trail Runner Paradise. It is like Christmas before Christmas. Look up and you’ll see magical massive mountain peaks, close your eyes and you’ll hear an heavy crowd cheering for the runners finishing the UTMB sister races (there are 5 races during UTMB week in Chamonix, and everyday something is happening), hang out in the town and you’ll pass dozens and dozens of trail running shops with the latest geeky gear. Basically, for an entire week, Chamonix eats, sleeps and breathes trail running.
We spent the days before the race exploring the area, hiking some gorgeous trails and eating local. It was sunny and warm, but unfortunately, the weather was calling for heavy rain for race day. Well, at least I would have a chance to try most of the mandatory equipment]!
Hiking above Chamonix. Those trails are STEEP!
Let’s go for a stroll around the Big White Guy
Starting a race at 5:30pm is quite interesting. You can spend a full night of sleep and take your time in the morning, which feels weird. I was lucky enough to have access to the Elite Starting Corral, so I just showed up 50min before the start of the race. The crowd was already dense and you could feel the excitement in the air.
With my new-found shelter, all the rain in the world could not hinder my happiness state!
(photo by Pat Werhane)
The gun went off. Everybody tends to start really fast since the first few miles are flat, but I knew this was a long race so I just settled down into a comfortable rhythm, chatting with Jesse Haynes and Tony Krupicka until we reach the first aid station at Les Houches.
Sharing the first few miles with AK
(photo by Passion Trail)
As soon as we hit the first climb, I realize that power-hiking it was not as easy as it should have been and I quickly accepted the fact that the race was going to take longer than my initial expectations. So I decided to make the best of the situation, moving forward the best I could while taking the time to enjoy the breathtaking scenery!
It started to be dark when I reached Les Contamines, the first AS where runners could see their crew. My parents and my sister were waiting for me there, and it was nice to see them. They were pretty excited, especially my Mom who couldn’t believe she was standing right next to Timothy Olson just few minutes ago when he was in the AS (yes, she is kind of an UltraRunning geek I guess ;)). The rain was still falling, so I put my jacket on and went into the night.
Night running at UTMB is something special. It’s cold, it’s raining, it’s very dark, but still, people are out there cheering on the runners. They set up campfires and cheer on every single runners, this race has a pretty damn amazing atmosphere in my opinion!
Notre Dame de la Gorge marks the beginning of the campfires along the course
At least 3 bigs climbs await for the runners during the night, Col du Bonhomme (mile 27), Col de la Seigne (mile 37) and Arête du Mt Favre (mile 42). Each climb is steep and relentless, but the warm soup waiting for you at the top of each summit is rewarding and worth the effort! I was casually chatting with my fellow runners, and got the pleasure to share some miles with Mike Wardian, who didn’t have a great day either. The miles flew by, and I started the steep decent into Courmayer (mile 48). This was the second time I could see my crew. I quickly put on dry socks and refill my pack before heading back out on the course.
Drop bags lines in Courmayer
It was 4:30AM in Italy, and while I was running in the streets of Courmayer, I got called out by a bakery worker who had just finished his first batch of croissant and wanted to know if he could offer me one. Unfortunately, my stomach was not that great at that time, so I politely declined the offer and thanked him. I started the steep hike to Refuge Bertone and felt good at first but suddenly felt very tired and I had to considerably slow down my hike. I finally reached Bertone, and took some time there to regroup, while enjoying a beautiful sunrise. The play of lights on the mountains were beautiful.
The next section was very rolling, and I really enjoyed it. It’s a nice smooth singletrack, and the views are top notch, especially under the morning light. Arnuva (mile 59) came pretty quick and I could already see the next big climb … the dreaded Grand Col Ferret. I took my time through the aid station and started the big climb that would bring me to the highest part of the day and into Switzerland. The climb to Grand Col Ferret was brutal and I was not able to match the pace of my fellow runners and quickly got distanced. After what seemed like eternity, I finally tagged the summit (mile 62) and got welcomed by a warm crowd! They told me I now had 13mi of descent before a short climb to Champex-Lac.
Feeling happy at the top of Grand Col Ferret
If you’re in good shape at that point, you can really make time on the descent … well, I was not, so I did not ;). This section was hard mentally, because I was pissed off I was reduced to a walk on some of the portion of the descent. Fortunately for me, I got caught up by a local runner from Saint-Gervais, Alexandre Hayetine, just before hitting the pavement leading to La Fouly, and we were about to share the next 20mi together.
My family waiting for me with a huge cowbell at La Fouly
I was amazed by the number different cheese they had at La Fouly AS (mile 68). They were all very good, so I sampled a few, and head back off on the course. My family was there, and they told me I was actually looking way better than most of the runners they have seen before me. Well, I figured they were probably lying to me so I could feel better, but still, that was great to hear some kind words.
I left the AS with Alexandre, and we made our way to Champex-Lac (mile 76), getting some weird looks by the Swiss cows along the way.
Arriving at Champex with Alexamdre
There was a lot of carnage at Champex, and unfortunately I saw a lot of my running friends there. It was sad to see that Jesse Haynes had just dropped as he was having some problems to stay awake and preferred to call it a day. Dakota Jones was also there, and I convinced him to leave the AS with me. He dropped few miles later.
Leaving Champex with Dakota
I ran the next rolling section before the steep climb up to Bovine (mile 83). I leap frogged with Alexandre on the climb, and we were moving very well. A lot of horned-like cows were on the trail, and we had to maneuver around with caution not to bother them too much while there were eating. We ran the descent to Trient together, passing a lot of tired runners in the process. We entered the AS, my Mom was there and quickly got me ready. She reminded me I only had 2 big climbs left.
Pep talk by my Mom at Trient
The climb to Catogne (mile 90) was brutal. I started to feel really bad, and I encouraged Alexandre not to wait for me and to pull ahead, as he was still going really strong. My quads were starting to seize up, and it looked like the final 15 miles were going to be a remake of my Angeles Crest 100 race … The descent to Vallorcine (mile 92) was a death march, and it was a relief to see my family at the AS.
The “FrenchTeam” patiently waiting for me at Vallorcine
I didn’t spend a lot of time in Vallorcine as I wanted to make the best of the last hours of light before entering the second night. I tried to move quick but I was in pain and it took me some time to came close to Col des Montets (mile 95), before attacking the last climb up to La Tete aux Vent (mile 98). I was struggling with every step as the second night was rapidly falling, and I was not at all enjoying the scrambling sections of the climb. There was a lot of cursing, and I couldn’t believe there was such a difficult climb at the end of a race. I finally tagged the summit, and made my way through the next boulder section to La Flegere (mile 100). It was very dark, and I wanted to be done. In the AS, I looked at my watch and saw that I could eventually break 30h if I started running. My quads were screaming, but I ignore the pain and started moving well again in the 5 miles descent!
The finish in Chamonix was insane, it was very late and already 90 runners had crossed the finish line before me, but I still felt received like I was the Champion!
Overall, running UTMB was a dream come true and an amazing experience. This race was beyond my expectations, and I can’t wait to be back, wiser and more prepared to the challenge it has to offer!