At 168km long, with 13 mountain passes and 9,600m of ascents through three countries, the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc is queen of the ultra-marathons
At 5.30pm on a Friday in midsummer Chamonix, 2,434 athletes are on the start line ready to race a semi-autonomous loop of the Mont Blanc Trail, starting and finishing in the French ski resort. They will face extreme fatigue, intense heat, cold, wind and even snow at high altitude. Right now, it’s lashing with rain.
The elite among them will finish in a little over 20 hours. The rest have a maximum of 46 hours, during which time they will race through two nights. It seems like the entirety of Chamonix has turned out to send them off for the North Face Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB). And no wonder: it’s one of the toughest courses in the world, with one of the most talented fields in ultrarunning and a start time that guarantees they will run through the night. In one sense, at least, it is not unlike sending people off to war.
Among them is Mike Foote, one of the elite field. The 31-year-old running coach from Montana finished the race on the podium in 2012, and is the man responsible for the quote to your left.
“We challenge ourselves, and we do it a few times a year at a big level because deep down we want to feel like we’re on the edge,” he explains. “I want to feel risk; I want to feel consequences. Sometimes you put yourself in that situation and you come out victorious. And sometimes [laughs] you don’t come back.”
So, how does he feel on the start line of such an event? “I’m trying to do everything I possibly can to stay relaxed,” he says. “There’s this, like, trying to get everybody really, really, really excited for a 20 to 40- hour race, depending on who you are. And all I can think is: there’s no reason to get the heart rate up yet.”
Paying the price
Jez Bragg the UK’s leading ultra-runner, is similarly cautious from the start. “It’s a dangerous place, really, because everyone is so fired up,” says the 33-year-old from Dorset, who won the UTMB in 2010. “Everyone is ready to charge out of the blocks, and that’s quite a risky thing to do with 168km in the mountains ahead of you. But, at the same time, you want to set off at a reasonable pace to not let anyone get ahead too much. It’s hard.
“People do get carried away and end up paying the price. And that’s the reason you get so many drop-outs – in the masses, and the elites as well. It’s the same every year. People don’t seem to learn from the stats and run to their ability.”
The stats support Bragg’s point: out of 2,500 starters – all of whom were obliged to qualify by completing, in the previous calender year, trail races recognised by the UTMB – 800 dropped out before the end.
“You have to have a plan and stick to it,” says Bragg. “There were guys runningup very steep inclines next to me on the first climb or two, and you just knew they were either going to blow up or finish a lot further back. And, lo and behold, that’s what happened. You need to be smart about your race. That’s key.”
The first climb, Le Delevret, comes at nearly 14km into the race and tops out at 1,764m. That’s followed by a descent into Saint Gervais (a drop of 946m), where the first time barrier comes into play: all runners must be at the checkpoint by 9.30pm or be eliminated from the race, although the best runners will pass it within a couple of hours.
Next comes the commune of Les Contamines (nearly 31km in, with a time barrier of 11.30pm – the fastest will do it by 8.30pm), the first of only five posts where runners can receive assistance from their support teams. There are a total of 17 food, drink or aid stations along the route, which has markers every 40 to 50 metres. Competitors then start towards the hike up to the Croix du Bonhomme, 2,439m high and 44km into the course.
Beauty And the beasting
“I love this race because it’s fantastically beautiful,” says Rory Bosio (pictured), a 30-year-old paediatric intensive care nurse from Truckee, California and the defending female UTMB champion. Like many of the elite field, she has been out in the Alps training for the past few weeks.
“I look at running as something that I love to do every day,” she explains. “I don’t wear a watch; I just go out and run and kind of listen to my body. So it’s kind of like an intuitive way to train and run. I really just do the races to justify the amount of time I spend running in the woods [breaking into laughter]. It’s more about exploration and seeing things and not so much about the workout. I will never do, probably, a road marathon. That doesn’t appeal. The reason I like to run is because I like to be in the mountains.”
To be 2,502m up on the Col de la Seigne in the dead of night having run and hiked 59.7km, however, you would have to really like being in the mountains. This is where the course crosses the border into Italy, by which time many competitors will have seen their first sunrise. There is then a drop down to Lake Combal before the ascent to Arete du Mont-Favre (68.4km in, at an altitude of 2,417m).
There follows a huge descent into Courmayeur (77km), where Bosio reached in eight hours and 30 minutes. French winemaker Francois D’Haene, one of the favourites for the race and leader at that stage, covered the distance in just seven hours and 26 minutes. Mike Foote came in half an hour behind him.
“I felt strong and in control for the first 50 miles [80km],” says the American. “I got out of Courmayeur, and had a great climb up to Refuge Bertone [82km in, 1,979m altitude], and then from Bertone to Bonatti [89.3km in, 2,015m altitude] I just started to have a low patch. That’s fine – we all go through that – but it just kept going down and down. And my body just started to seize up. I was trying to run, but it was stopping me. I made it slowly to Arnuva [94.5km], where I stopped for about 15 minutes and ate a lot of food, drank a lot of liquids. I was really unable to run up to Grand Col Ferret – I just walked.”
Grand Col Ferret, at 2,525m high and 99km into the trail, is where the race crosses its second border – into Switzerland. It is also the highest point of the course.
“I continued to walk down to La Fouly [108km],” Foote continues. “I had four or five hours to really think about it, and at the rate I was moving it didn’t seem like I was coming back. I wasn’t going to bounce back, and it was going to be another 15 hours to the finish. I’ve done that before, but this time I guess I didn’t really see the benefit.
“Was I going to injure myself just to prove a point? So I decided to drop there, which was a pretty hard moment.”
Foote had never in his career, up to that point, not finished a race. For UTMB 2014, however, he registered a DNF. He was not alone: a total of 843 failed to finish.
“Usually, I don’t allow myself even the thought of dropping,” he says. “If you don’t think of it as an option, then it’s not. Then [if you] really take account where you are and what’s happening to you physically... then allowing it to be an option is a tough transition in your mind to make, when you’ve put so much time into mentally focusing on not having it there. But I had a few hours.”
Bragg is more philosophical about the times he feels like he cannot continue: “You’ve just got to remember that, more often than not, they don’t last forever and you can kind of work through them. The lows you get in UTMB are definitely extreme as far as ultra-distance racing goes. They really are quite low moments. I suppose you’ve got to recognise what’s going on – whether it’s your nutrition, your breathing because of the altitude, or your moving too fast. And just try and analyse what’s going on and rectify it.
“It’s easier said than done. It’s a vicious cycle: you’re at altitude, your breathing is more laboured, your heart rate is elevated, and for all those reasons you are finding it harder to digest food. People struggle to get stuff down, then they feel queasy, and then they start to feel sick. And that’s it – their bodies start to shut down.”
Trail runners have a saying: if you’ve been ‘chicked’, you’ve been passed by a girl. Bosio, who finished 15th overall with a time of 23 hours, 20 minutes and 20 seconds, ‘chicked’ the majority of the field – including Foote and Bragg – and successfully defended her UTMB title. Her hardest point, she says, didn’t come until 149km into the race, just over the French border in Vallorcine – which she reached in 20 hours and 27minutes – and lasted to the finish.
“It’s just hard,” she says. “I was anticipating that the climb up Col des Montets [153km, 1,466m altitude] was going to be my hardest point, because that’s what it was last year. I actually felt pretty good when I got to the top, though, and struggled more through the part where you’re going from the top to La Flegere [160km, 1,863m altitude]. You’re going along the contour, but it’s really rocky and probably one of the more technical sections of the race.
“It’s hard for me to be relaxed running like that, especially in the mud. I feel like I’m tensing up and trying not to slip, so you don’t get that sense of flow. So that section was really hard, because it’s very rocky and you can’t get your rhythm down. You’re picking your way along, and my legs felt like [there were] a dozen little knives stabbing them.
“Then the descent down from Flegere to Chalet Floria – which is about 5km to go – is really steep, really rocky; lots of switchbacks. The downhill is [so difficult that]… I would rather go uphill at that point, because you’re just hiking. It’s the downhills that just kill you, because your legs are so sore, but you know you should be going kind of fast – picking up the pace. It just hurts. But going uphill you’re not getting that jarring, that pounding on your legs.”
Only 200 women – out of 2,434 runners – started the UTMB. But Bosio insists more women should be doing longer races.
“There’s not enough of them,” she says. “I feel like for races that are 50km to 100km, there are way more women. But I think women, at least the women I talk to, feel so intimidated by the longer distances. But they don’t realise that actually, the longer the races, the more competitive you are with men. And the disparity between men and women seems to become less and less. Women are made for endurance. Look at women going through childbirth – they’re doing it for like 30 hours.”
Jez Bragg’s wife Gemma was running for more than 10 hours longer than that, eventually completing the course in just over 40 hours and 46 minutes. Bragg himself finished five places behind Bosio, in 24 hours and 14 minutes.
“I was pretty bad, really, at the end of the race, so I ended up in the medical tent – which was unfortunate because that delayed me getting out to watch Gemma,” says Bragg. “I knew how important it was to her. So I had to be there to support her through her second night. But I was really anxious about that, because I know how it just flips the race on its head. It’s probably the toughest part.
“My first attempt, in 2005, I went through the second night. And it just gets very different. The hallucinations get a lot more vivid and quite scary. You just feel a lot more vulnerable. Your pace is so much slower at night, but particularly during the second night. It’s really tough. And it breaks a lot of people. Then you see them on Sunday morning, back in the bright sunshine, and you think what they’ve been through since Friday, and they’re covered in mud and bumps and bruises. You can just see the experience written in their faces. It’s quite incredible.”
Every runner returning to Chamonix – no matter what their time – is given a rapturous welcome by the crowds, who are four or five deep towards the finish. D’Haene, who led from the start, won in 20 hours, 11 minutes, 44 seconds – 44 minutes ahead of secondplaced Spaniards Tofol Castanyer amd Iker Karrera, who crossed the line together.
Finishing is, says Bragg, an emotional experience: “More than anything, it’s a true journey. You make this amazing circumnavigation of Europe’s highest mountain – and it’s the sense of successfully completing that and the crowds recognising that. There’s so much respect for the runners and what they do, and all the spectators are in awe of this sense of human spirit and determination. That’s the special thing about the race. That’s why I keep going back. There’s nothing like it, really.”
Foote, too, underlines the respect felt among the runners – at all levels.
“Because, if you show up to the start line and you’re participating in this event, you’re taking a big risk,” he explains. “You’re accepting this big challenge. And, if you’re not prepared well for it, it can chew you up and spit you out. There’s no doubt about it.”