Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc

Preparation

Following my disastrous performance at Western States earlier in the summer I was keen to rectify matters. Regardless of my stupidity in dealing with my feet issues during the race, I had come into it grossly unprepared due to the groin issues I had been struggling with since early spring. My legs were just not ready for 100 miles of racing. I needed to get on top of this groin issue otherwise UTMB was destined to go the same way.

A disappointing outing

I had been seeing Ginna at Boulder Acusport for a while in the run up to Western States and despite having some success in getting me to run at all, I was still going from run to run with no idea if I’d be able to make it 2 miles or 10 miles. After Western States, things didn’t surprisingly get any better. Funny how running 100 miles on a broken body doesn’t improve things. I went back to see Ginna to help alleviate some of the tightness following the race and she suggested that I should try a heel insert in my right shoe as she suspected I might have a very small imbalance in my leg length.

$6 and two weeks later and just like that, I was a new man!

I cannot understate how incredible it felt to run pain free. It had been quite some time since I had been able to run unrestricted. With a renewed vigor I set about getting my body in shape to tackle the brutality that is UTMB. I had 6 weeks.

The nice thing about living in Boulder is that is it very conducive to a short, intense and entirely unrealistic training plan. Although ‘training plan’ might be a bit of stretch to describe my ad hoc, seat of the pants, do-what-you-want approach.

I did several after-work, misery inducing long runs involving convoluted and arduous nonsensical routes. Luckily there are plenty of idiots  around here that can be easily persuaded to partake in said misery, hence I was not short of enablers to help get me to the starting line. If you don’t like boring training plans then join a running club. Misery loves company.

FOMO

4 weeks later and I didn’t feel particular fast. Then again running 100 miles around the Alps doesn’t need ‘fast’. It needs ‘tough’. And my legs did feel pretty tough. I took the 5th week super easy and in the final week traveled out to Chamonix to settle in.

Contemplation

Unlike the women, history has not been kind to the American men at UTMB. Previous runnings have been littered with shortcomings, spectacular blowups and DNF’s. I suspect that this is in part due to their inability to behave themselves once arriving in the greatest adult playground on Earth. I would not fall into this trap. Luckily for me I have spent a good deal of time in the Alps between running and mountaineering and so was reasonably content to spend my week lounging on the couch looking up at the majestic peaks while concentrating on my cheese consumption game.

Just your average view from home in Chamonix
Pre-game

I had recruited an embarrassingly large crew to help usher me through the mountains of the Alps. I had the Wife who by virtue of marriage cannot decline such tasks. I had hijacked Matt and Erin’s vacation to Europe to ensure the misery was adequately captured on camera. I had secured Yves as the local liaison to translate and ensure the correct amount of cheese was consumed. Recent UK transplant Victor had come over to add to the cheers but probably mostly to remind himself what the sun looked like. I had secured the siblings to ensure appropriate lies could be spun when recounting stories to the family. Finally I had a stellar cast of remote internet trolls keen to waste their weekend watching and cheering from afar to ensure I had adequate pressure not to quit. This was indeed the greatest cast of lackeys ever assembled. Success was almost guaranteed.

Chamonix Rocks!
The A-Team
Killing time waiting for me to run over the mountains

 

Crewing is mandatory for siblings

Keen to ensure I had as many affiliations as possible and to confuse onlookers of nationality and allegiances, I had several badges, flags and logo’s plastered over my body. Rocky Mountain Runners t-shirt and hat, Team Colorado badge on the backpack, United Kingdom flag on the bib and United States smiley faces on the calves. Surely I would have to come out on top in one of these categories!

Confusing everyone

Race day soon approached and Eric, Amy and I proceeded down to the check-in to have our backpacks full of kitchen sinks and spare kitchen sinks checked by the race officials. I do find it kind of odd that for a country so blasé with your personal safety in other endeavors such as skiing and mountaineering they are so eager to ensure you can survive a zombie apocalypse in a little run around the Alps. At least it’s consistently applied and everyone is in the same boat. Extra weight. Extra misery!

This was the first race that I’ve been drug tested for as part of the ‘elite’ contingent of the race. Not that I particularly like the term or consider myself elite. Being British I don’t particularly like to blow my own trumpet. I’d rather prefer to consider myself an enthusiast with a healthy obsession for improvement. Either that or I have an unhealthy obsession with being miserable.

10% blood, 90% cheese and beer

It’s a painfully slow wait until the absurdly inconvenient start time of 6pm on Friday. I spent most of the day sitting around on the couch chatting and trying in vein to nap. Finally the time came to wander down to the starting line and soak in the electric atmosphere. Things were about to get real.

Warming up for a 100 miler
Warming up for a 100 miler
Colorado bringing their A game
Colorado bringing their A game

The main perk with being in the elite/obsessive field is that you get to line up in the front of pack which does help to relieve some of the pre-start stresses. I hung out in the shade, avoiding the boiling hot temperatures before finally slipping into the corral. I chatted briefly with some of the other American contingent who made up a particularly strong and promising showing this year. After what seemed like an eternity standing there in the baking sun the countdown began. And just like that we were off.

Execution

The start of UTMB is like nothing you have ever experienced. Crowds line the streets for miles, literally screaming at you as you seemingly float down the road effortlessly to Les Houches. My main goal on this section was not to end my race here. UTMB is notorious for this.

Photo credit: iRunFar
Photo credit: iRunFar

The Boston Marathon of Ultramarathons

I figured there would be two strategies for a successful showing at UTMB, i.e. a top 10 finish :

1. Go all out from the start and hang the hell on until the bitter end hoping that it’s your lucky day
2. Go out conservatively but consistently and try to mop up the carnage ahead.

I figured the winner would come from group number 1 with a smattering of lucky souls who were too stubborn to abandon their high stakes gamble. The rest of the top 10 I thought, would be made up from the second group who would capitalize on a well executed strategy late in the race.

I am not known for my successful execution of strategy #2, preferring in general, the recklessness of strategy #1. From the start however, it was clear that the recklessness of European racing is at a whole other level. Western States in comparison is a civilized affair at the start, bordering on boring. I settled in to what I thought was a sensible pace and let a decent sized crowd disappear out of sight. Strategy #2 was in progress.

People often ask what goes on in your head when you run these kinds of things. Well this is about all I can remember :

Mile 0.1 [Chamonix]

Holy crap this is insane. I think I’m deaf.

Dude, I’m about to run straight into you while you take that selfie.

Ok stay in the game Smith, stay in the game.

Words cannot really describe what it feels like to run out of that starting line and down the roads of Chamonix. We were like gods. Or cattle. It was intense.

Mile 2 [Les Bossons]

What is wrong with these people. Don’t they realize we have to run 107 miles over the friggin Alps!

Stay cool Smith, stay cool. This pace is more than respectable. Bide your time…

Races start fast in Europe.

Mile 5 [Les Houches]

Gahhh, who the hell wants fizzy goddam water at an aid station. Gotta dump all this before I puke and find some good old American style water.

For some reason unbeknownst to me, they had both regular water and sparkling water at aid stations and it was really hard to tell which was which. As far as I know the only point of sparkling water is so they can charge you for it at the restaurant.

Mile 9 [Le Délevret]

Ok first climb done and it wasn’t that bad. Sort of.

Jeez they’ve got the helicopter out already. What’s next, friggin Eagles with GoPros.

Mile 13 [Saint Gervais]

Ok I wont lie, that downhill hurt a bit.

Damn there are a lot of people our here. I feel all self conscious. Look cool Smith, look cool.

The first major spectating spot is Saint Gervais at the base of a crushing descent from Le Délevre. To say the crowd is exited is an understatement. Literally thousands of people screaming and yelling at you, it’s hard to remain composed and get what you need from the aid station there. I think I just ran out of the aid station with an orange slice, terrified.

Saint Gervais [minutes 19:30-20:00]:

Mile 20 [Les Contamines]

Crew at last! Hang on I can’t see anyone, it just looks like the exit staircase at a football game. Everyone knows my name though, I must be a big deal. Oh wait, my name is on my bib.

Damn, didn’t expect Laney to catch me up after the climb. He looks fresh. Damn.

Oh that’s Dylan Bowman. He cheered for me. Phew, I am a big deal.

The crew aid stations at UTMB are very unique and for good reason I suppose. There are just so many people lining the streets around the aid that they have to be very strict with who they allow into the ‘crewing zones’. It’s actually a relief to escape the noise and excitement into a closed tent so that you and your crew person can focus on getting what you need before heading out onto the long sections between crew accessible aid stations. This was my first time with my crew and I wouldn’t see them again for another 30 miles later.

Going through the aid stations was a bit like this. A blur.

 

Just your average UTMB aid station!
I was pretty much alone from early on in the race

Mile 22 [Notre-Dame de la Gorge]

Wow, these guys are not messing around with their bonfires. You could probably see that sucker from space.

Jeez I just swallowed like 5lbs of smoke.

Oh crap, this climb just got real.

Although we had been climbing ever since Saint Gervais, the checkpoint at Notre-Dame de la Gorge signified the start of some serious climbing and thankfully some much needed quietness as we headed into the real mountains.

Mile 26 [Col du Bonhomme]

This mountain smells like cheese.

Yup it definitely smells like cheese. What the hell. I like cheese but this is weird.

No clue why but the entire climb up to the Croix du Bonhomme had this musty cheesy smell which made it really hard to breath without feeling nauseous. Must be one strange plant.

Mile 31 [Les Chappieux]

Oh a bag check. Man, I hope they don’t make me put on the ladies stockings I packed for the ‘must have something to cover full legs’ requirement. Things could get weird.

Damn, this is like full on gourmet soup. These Italians are not messing around. No clue what they are telling me though, but they look happy. I must be a big deal.

Mile 34 [La Ville de Glaciers]

Damn I’m smoking this douche grade road. Game on.

Ooh, there’s Laney and Vajin Armstrong. Some banter at last.

Holy god, is that lights in the distance half way up that mountain. I’m running with freaks. Sage is probably up there. Bet he’s not getting any banter.

Mile 38 [Col de la Seigne]

Ok that climb was properly legit. My legs hate me.

Ok according to my ElevationTat I seem to have another small peak to tackle before the big descent.

The original and still the best. The ElavationTat was indispensable.

Trent from ElevationTat had kindly hooked me up with a temporary tattoo which I found to be incredibly useful in this race. There were other companies there that had clearly ripped off Trent’s idea but I found them to be a far inferior product in terms of design quality and usefulness. e.g. They had the aid station names on there which took up way too much room and was basically a useless piece of information. Trents’ design makes much more intelligent use of color and layout.

Mile 39.4 [Col des Pyramides Calcaires]

Holy mother of god. This is like the biggest mountain in the world. It looked so small on my arm.

I want to vomit.

Crap, that Gediminas Grinius just passed me like I was standing still. Guess I won’t be seeing him again.

I think I’m going to vomit.

I am going to murder Eric Lee, he told me it’s all runnable. Boulder fields are not goddamn runnable!

Man the f*&!k up Smith, man the f*&!k up.

Mile 39.8 [Col des Pyramides Calcaires]

The top at last. I swear that climb was the worst thing I’ve ever done.

OH MY GOD. THEY HAVE COKE. I’M SAVED.

Are you friggin kidding me. It’s a boulder field on the other side.

Eric Lee is a dead man.

This extra addition to the race was both terrific and awful. It was a really majestic col nestled between to rock monoliths with a really cool glass refugio in the middle. It was however the most technical section of the whole course which coincided with one of my lowest spots. I hated every minute of it until it was over! Then I quite liked it.

Mile 43 [Lac Combal]

Hmm, I don’t want to get my hopes up but I’m fairly sure it’s all downhill into Courmayeur. This Elevation Tat does show a little hill but maybe I already did it and didn’t notice.

Oh hey Meghan Hicks! Yeah I’m fine thanks.

What’s that you say, a MASSIVE climb coming up.

Way to crush my dreams. You could have lied and told me it was tiny.

Shit.

Shortly after Meghan crushed my dreams with this harsh reality I came across Silke and Yves who had run up from Courmayeur to spectate. This provided a much needed boost mentally and really helped get me to Courmayeur in one piece. The climb however still sucked. A lot.

Mile 50 [Courmayeur]

Ok I’m fairly sure my legs are damaged for life. Have they never heard of switchbacks here.

Wow this aid station is legit. Finally I can actually see my crew.

Ok, they really know how to make soup here. This stuff is for real.

Jeez they are filming me drinking soup. I must be a big deal.

What? Sage had to get stitches and he’s out? Shit.

Mile 51 [Courmayeur]

Ok Smith, don’t be the only idiot who gets lost in Courmayeur.

Seriously though. They choose now to be stingy with their course markings.

Ok I’m pretty sure Silke told me it was like 3 miles up a road.

I’m fairly sure I’ve been on this road for like 3 days.

Mile 53 [Refuge Bertone]

Running sucks. Racing sucks. This hill sucks.

I’m old. I’m too old for this shit.

Damn it. Why do I do this. This is no fun at all.

This is definitely not fun. In no way is this remotely fun. I will not do this stupidity again.

Holy crap, where did Laney come from? He looks fresh. He’s like a goddamn zombie. I can’t shake the guy. So long, guess I won’t be seeing him again.

Mile 55 [Refuge Bonatti]

Man, this view is amazing. This place is incredible.

Running is awesome. This is awesome.

Man this is fun.

Damn, there’s Laney again.

Mile 64 [Grand col Ferret]

Man, topping out for the sunrise. This is awesome.

Another helicopter. I must be a big deal.

Ok this must be Switzerland. Everything is so damn tidy.

Mile 68 [Ferret]

Ok, I’m fairly sure that was Julien Chorier. He looks wrecked.

I can’t believe this is first person I’ve passed in 35 miles.

I thought there would be more carnage. People here are friggin legit.

Oh well 15th ish is pretty legit too. I’ll just keep trucking along.

Mile 70 [La Fouly]

Oh I wasn’t expecting to see my crew here! I thought it was the next aid. Bonus! When does that ever happen?!

Sage is back out on the course! Shit. He is insane. I would totally be sitting with a beer right now thanking my lucky stars I had a valid excuse to stop this nonsense. He must really like misery.

Oh man, we totally missed that turn. Right out of the aid station as well. How embarrassing. I’ll just blame Laney, he’s new at this.

Coming into La Fouly with my BFF David Laney

 

Aid Stations are pretty lush out here
About to make a wrong turn for 100 meters or so

Mile 74 [Praz de Fort]

Ok I’m pretty sure Laney was just like one corner ahead of me and now I don’t see him. There’s no way he took off that fast. He must have taken a wrong turn. Poor bastard.

Mile 79 [Chamex-Lac]

This hill is the worst. Yup. The worst hill ever.

Running is stupid. This race is stupid. This hill is stupid.

Holy crap a water trough. I’M SAVED. I have no idea if this is potable but I don’t even care. This hill is stupid.

Ok aid station coming up. I should pretend I’m ok.

F&*k it. I can’t even pretend.

I am going to actually have a seat. Yup that’s it I’m sitting down. Screw everyone.

I’m in 11th place? Seriously? Damn it. 11th goddamn place. Thats like the worst place to be in.

F*^!k it. I’m getting up. Pull yourself together Smith, pull yourself together.

[minute 22:10 through 25:50]

Mile 83

Ok Smith, 3 climbs left. How bad can that be.

Holy mother of god. It must be like 1,000,000 degrees centigrade out here.

Ok I’m fairly sure this climb is not supposed to be this steep. Seriously. This is just mean.

Mile 88 [Trient]

Ok that climb was ridiculous. Two more of those is just not even reasonable.

Aid station at last, thank bloody god. Ok I might just have another little seat. Just for a second.

Hang on that looks like Gediminas Grinius. Shit, I can snag 10th.

Ok crew people, I’m outta here, need to catch Grinius.

Wow, he’s walking that douche grade. Shit, that means I gotta run it.

Ok think he’s outta sight, better throw down on this climb to make sure.

Things got more than a little hot out there
Feeling the heat in the latter stages of the race
Leaving Trient with renewed focus for catching 10th place
Game face

Mile 91 [Catogne]

Ok that completely toasted me. Shit.

Screw it. Just run down this stupid hill and get to Vallorcine.

Coming in hot. Literally and figuratively!
The look of ‘my legs are completely trashed’

Mile 95 [Vallorcine]

Hang on, that looks like someone ahead of me. Dude you’re mine.

Ok I’m in 9th now, feeling pretty decent and everyone at the aid station is cheering for me as I passed him. I must be a big deal.

Ok that dude looks kinda smoked. Just need to crush this last section to be sure. I’m feeling pretty great. Man, I’m invincible.

Racing at mile 95 is in no way fun
Leaving Vallorcine in 9th place. Baking to death in the heat and eager to wrap this party up.

Mile 95.5 [Vallorcine]

Shit

Shit

I’m totally cooked. That guy is gonna catch back up.

Running sucks. This race sucks. This douche grade road sucks.

Doing anything I can to stay cool
Pain face

Mile 97 [Col des Montets]

Holy mother f#$%#$%ing jesus. Are you goddamn kidding me. That climb looks ridiculous.

There is no need for that. Why couldn’t we just run down the flippin road into Chamonix.

I hate this race. I just need to finish it so I never need to come back here again and partake in this lunacy.

Grinding out the path to the final climb
Are you effing kidding me. Looking up at the final climb.

Mile 98 [on route to Tête aux Vents]

Ok that guy is definitely gonna catch me back up. This hill is brutal.

Why is this camera guy following me up the hill? I must be a big deal.

I should probably stop swearing.

F$*k it. This camera guy sucks. Running sucks. This race sucks. This hill sucks.

Mile 100 [Tête aux Vents]

Oh sweet jesus. That’s it. No more climbs. Wow this view is amazing.

Running is amazing. This race is amazing.

Ok Smith, crush this down hill. CRUSH IT.

Mile 106 [outskirts of Chamonix]

Ok I’m pretty sure that sign at La Flégère said I had some climbing to do but that looks like Chamonix ahead.

It is Chamonix! OH MY GOD IT’S NEARLY OVER!

There’s my crew!

Mile 106.5 [Central Chamonix]

Holy crap I’m gonna finish top 10.

This is AWESOME! Running is amazing. This race is amazing. My crew is amazing.

I am never doing this again.

Mile 106.6 [The Finish]

These crowds are insane. I can’t hear anything. I must be a big deal.

I can’t even believe I don’t have to run anymore.

If I had any emotion left I’d probably cry.

I think I’ll have a seat.

Surely someone must have beer. Or ice cream.

I should probably get both.

 

23 hours 10 minutes and 7 seconds for 9th 8th place (UPDATE July 19, 2016: 5th place runner disqualified due to positive testing for EPO)

 

Words can’t quite describe this feeling

 

Someone give me a beer!
Elation. Ecstasy. Relief. Beer.
Cooked
Nothing quite like having your friends and family at the finish line!
Am fairly sure she’s asking me what kind of beer i would like..
A large, wet, cold beer please.
Please, someone out there get me a beer.
Chairs. During the race, the most evil contraptions imaginable. After the race, bliss.
Repping for Boulder, CO!
Jeez maybe I am a big deal
The Hardware

Reflection

UTMB is truly one of the most unique and toughest mountain runs in the world. It was a privilege to get to experience it and hats off to anyone that gets to that finish line. It is well deserved.

I had a decent day there. Not my best day I think, but my strategy was solid and I kept plugging away despite some pretty bad low spots. I definitely didn’t have the mental fight in me for the last 30 miles that I wanted to have. I clearly remember saying to myself that I needed to push harder but the other voice in my head won over and said I didn’t need to. David Laney showed what is possible in the final miles of the race and that is something I’d like to emulate in the future. It’s really hard to find the motivation to push yourself that late in the day but the rewards can be mind blowing, as his result demonstrated. A truly impressive feat.

Interestingly all 3 Americans (I’ll count myself in there for numbers sake) inside the top 10 did the Western States / UTMB double. Just an interesting fact. Doesn’t really mean anything of course.

Looking at my time and comparing it to other years, it’s still pretty competitive, especially since this was the longest and toughest route to date with 2 extra miles and 500 extra meters of climbing (across that damn boulder field no less!). I think I may have the fastest time by a Brit to date but not entirely sure?

One thing is for sure. I had the best crew out there. Team Gangreen along with my family were instrumental in getting me to the finish line. Both the local crew on site and the remote supporters who I knew were glued to their monitors. It’s hard to DNF a race with this kind of support.

It’s been a couple of weeks now and I can say that my recovery after this has probably been the best so far from any previous 100 miler. I think the less that goes wrong during the day the better your chances for recovery are. I’ll take some time to chill now but will probably start back up towards the end of the month as I just signed up for the North Face 50 miler in San Francisco in December which should be a good complement to the Houston Marathon in January where I will try to sneak in under that elusive 2:30 mark!

I suppose it’s a good sign that my motivation is just as high if not higher than ever before. I am excited about the next set of races and already thinking about what’s in store for next year. Hopefully it means my balance with enjoyment and improvement is spot on. Either that or it’s a sign of obsession.

Mountains are great! And terrible. But mostly great!

Gear

In UTMB more than anywhere, gear is critical. I put a lot of thought into my gear for this race given the length, terrain and overall difficulty not to mention the extensive list of mandatory gear. 107 miles is a long way to find out you got it wrong.

After the Western States debacle I was pretty convinced I’d switch back to the Bushidos for this race. The Helios SR while still a great shoe, is just not the right shoe for me for 100 mile mountain races. I’ll use them in the future for shorter, faster races (50K or less) I think. In training however I was having a few issues with the Bushidos, I think due to the fact I was wearing the heel insert and it changed the foot position slightly. I made a last minute call to use the Mutants which I had been wearing a lot recently in my training runs.

Boy was I glad I did. The Mutants excelled. Hands down the best 100 mile shoe I’ve ever worn. I had the same pair on from start to finish and never once thought about my feet. The traction is second to none and the comfort is outstanding. The side lacing system and the folded tongue design really helps to keep the tops of my feet happy which is something I have struggled with in the past on the really long stuff. I’ve had a couple of pairs so far and have maybe put 500 miles or so on the first pair but it’s actually quite hard to tell. They are extremely robust which I have really come to expect from the La Sportiva line. A true versatile and performant mountain shoe.

Same pair of Mutants in the Sahara desert after UTMB

There is a lot of mandatory gear that you must carry in your pack so it’s important to get it right. While the weather was blazing hot for us, the Alps are notorious for their truly miserable weather up high. I used the La Sportiva Hail Jacket and Pants which I think offered the best protection for their weight. These things really weigh next to nothing and are fully waterproof! Looking forwarded to testing them more over the winter here in Boulder.

The big question most American/Brits have with UTMB is whether to carry poles. This is mostly because you have to start and finish with them if you decide to use them. I’ve used them before during the Trans Alps stage race both times and never regretted it so it was an easy decision for me. I mostly find the benefit in the downhills which is not what most people would expect. I think next time, however, I would stash them away a little more often to allow my body to perhaps pickup the pace a little more naturally. I found them to limit my pace on occasion which is, of course, not necessarily a bad thing. Perhaps it was the even pace/effort which helped me stay consistent throughout. Next time however I might put them away towards the end and just go for it. In terms of make/model, don’t even waste your time looking at anything except the Black Diamond Distance Z poles.

I was pretty happy with my Inov-8 Race Ultra 10 backpack but I think I’m kind of in the middle of the two sizes so when the water was empty it did move around a little. Not enough to annoy me though. I really liked the stash pockets on the side which meant I never actually took my pack off once to get at any of the gear in the main compartment (it was mostly cold and wet weather stuff). I wasn’t in love with the squishy bottles but they were comfortable so I kept one of the original bottles with the hoses for water and switched the other bottle for a Hydrapak Softflask which was more convenient to fill with CarboPro due to the larger neck.

Talking about CarboPro, I used it throughout which I was especially happy about due to the searing temperatures (35 Celsius / 95 Fahrenheit).  Ordinarily I’d be pretty stoked at the meat and cheese selection but nothing at the aid stations looked appealing to me in that heat. I was able to carry a decent amount with me in small bags to last the long sections without crew.

 

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