Mont Blanc, the highest peak in Western Europe. The ultra-trail that winds itself around MB starts in picturesque Chamonix, a popular ski resort. If you’ve never been to the event, it’s difficult to imagine what the atmosphere will be like. Friends of mine had done the race, so I knew its background. Travelling with the Hoka ONE ONE team, who had many runners challenging for top places, I knew the chance to follow such an iconic race through the night would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Standing at the start of the UTMB on the Friday evening, squashed in amongst thousands of people – residents, runners, families, friends – was a completely crazy and electrifying experience. Everyone banged on the advertising boards and cheered passionately. Then, it happened. The music switched to Vangelis’s Conquest of Paradise, the crowds became still and silent and those on the start-line focused ahead. As the runners contemplated the 100-miles ahead, goose bumps rippled over my body. In that moment you are drawn into their journey. What were they thinking?
Suddenly, without a countdown, they were off, sprinting up the road as if they were doing a Saturday morning 5K! The greatest race on earth had started. We went to Les Contamines for our first vantage point. The weather was cruel as the rain soaked us through to the skin and my thoughts wondered to the runners. I knew they would have been wet and cold for hours already. How would they be faring in the dark? Pretty amazingly as it turned out, for the leaders were shifting quickly as they ran through hundreds of supporters shouting and touching each runner.
You don’t get this level of passionate support in British races! I walked through the town away from the thickest crowds, wanting to spot Women’s Running’s chief sub-editor Damian, who was tackling this beast for his fourth time. I’d planned to shout a ‘Well done, Damian’, but when he suddenly appeared before me, in 12th place and only 20 minutes behind the leader, I was more worried about how cold he was. I ran alongside him for a little bit (I’m not that quick), chatting and checking he was OK and he seemed chirpy, even though later he said he had been having a mini slump. You wouldn’t have known. These runners were powering through the night. How could they sustain this pace, with the elevation, for so long? Even though thousands complete these races every year, up in the mountains, in the rain, all I could wonder was: is this possible for 100 miles? The less rational part of my mind thought: “They’re all going to die!”
Into the night
Our next stop was Notre Dam de la Gorge, where we walked along a pitch black path (yes walked, not ran, and that felt like a challenge without a headtorch) to a small bridge next to a bonfire that marked the beginning of another steep ascent. The rain continued and it was feeling cold; one runner stopped to ask me to open his poles as his hands were too cold. British runner Jo Meek passed me, head down, hood up, and even though I shouted out to her I knew she hadn’t heard. The conditions were bleak.
We then had the rude luxury of going back to our chalet, and calling it a night – or carrying on to Refuge Bertone, a major feed station at the bottom of another climb. My head said go to bed, my heart wouldn’t let me. So we headed back towards Courmayeur and again, up in to the mountains. The rain had stopped, the moon and the stars revealed, accompanied by a biting sub-zero temperature (which went as low as -10 at some points). By this point I was humbled in to silence. The refuge came alive as the first runners came in for a precious few minutes of shelter, food, warmth and support. Their crews were meticulous at laying out everything their runner could want: food, drinks, fresh clothes, replacement head torches, new shoes, fresh kit. Nicky Spinks was crewing for Damian. She said he was doing well, but he had moved from an early 12th place down to 14th.
The final descent
Many of the crew were partners, some had their babies with them, strapped around them as they waited. For me, it was the most interesting part of following the race… Some of the athletes were calm, talking only to their crew, resting, apparently relaxed. Others seemed crazed, grabbed supplies and flew out of the refuge. A few were broken. Some didn’t carry on.
The statistics are brutal; nearly as many runners DNF as finish. Returning back to our chalet felt wrong; we were heading to bed for a few hours while the mountain runners still had so far to go. This race takes you through France, Switzerland and Italy. After about 20 hours the leaders descend back into Chamonix, to the most dramatic finale you can imagine. The reception for finishers, back from their 100-mile adventure, is simply unbelievable.
Even if you don’t run, the atmosphere is unrivalled. Go and soak it up, spectate and support, there are many shorter trails in the Chamonix valley that you can bimble along while you’re there for the event. But go. Having the opportunity to follow this race, with the HOKA ONE ONE team, was so insightful. Volunteering in races, crewing, supporting and spectating is such a vital part of our sport. I wish I had been out there though, running through the mountains. Maybe next year. And definitely on one of the shorter races in the series.
Chief sub Damian came in fifth, first placed Brit – though he was slightly outshone by first British lady Beth Pascall, who finished fourth lady, a truly incredible performance. In this race, though, every finisher is a hero.
“I had a pretty perfect race. I believe the reason I had a good day was that I stuck to my pacing strategy and didn’t get carried away with the fast pace at the start. It was essentially go out steady, build, race, finish. I only had a couple of low moments but plenty of highs. Dawn above Val Ferret was particularly special, perhaps because it was the only time the mountains are not enveloped in cloud! Of course I had to dig really deep at the finish, but I just thought about all the time and energy I had invested in my training, my friends & family who had come out to support, and my coach who had made me believe it was possible. I can certainly see myself being back at UTMB next year.
“This year roughly 10 per cent of the field at UTMB were women. I’d love to see a more even split, largely because a race like this suits women. Ultra’s are less about speed and power, but more about endurance and composure, which are women’s attributes. Many women would find that they do comparatively better when the distance is long enough. Today, running 26.2 miles is almost the norm, but stepping beyond this is less about getting faster or thinner, it’s about courage, empowerment and self-esteem.”
To take on one of the races in the UTMB series you have to accrue points. Find qualifying races at: utmbmontblanc.com. There are a variety of race options on offer, starting with children’s races, the OCC (55K, 3,500m ascent), the CCC (101K, 6,100m ascent), the UTMB (170K, 10,000m ascent) and the PTL (300K, 2500m ascent team relay).