This month we are featuring two very different experiences of the epic Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. This legendary race follows the classic Tour du Mont Blanc hiking path, starting and ending in Chamonix, forming a loop around Mont Blanc. It has a distance of approximately 171 kilometres (106 mi), and a total elevation gain of around 10,040 metres (32,940 ft) and is widely regarded as one of the most difficult foot races in the world.
- On the one hand we have Iain Martin, a well-seasoned, successful triathlete and ultrarunner with many ultras under his belt.
- On the other we have Pierre Meslet (article below), light on his feet as a mountain goat and whose driving ambition is to ultimately conquer the Marathon de Sables.
Could you run continuously for 2 consecutive days?
Read them both and see what you think!
Pierre’s UTMB Experience
Coming into this year’s UTMB I felt more prepared than in 2017, when I was last in Chamonix.
Physically, my training method changed for the best 12 months ago when I started taking advice from a professional coach: Robbie Britton (and his colleagues from Centurion Running: Sophie Grant & Tom Craggs). Thank you.
Mentally, I was rested after 3 amazing weeks of holidays on the beach. I was keen to race and put all that training to the test. Taking part in the UTMB is no small feat and it’s always a very exciting event. My wife said to me several times I was twitchy and nervous on Friday. But it was good stress, she could see it, I was happy, I knew what I had to do. I had come here 4 years ago and got carried away and had nutrition issues during the race. I finished slowly, cold and frustrated. I was coming back to erase those memories and replace them with a brighter version.
Strategically, I was in good hands with my wife by my side. Coming back here without the little ones was a key choice in this year’s success I believe. It allowed me to relax fully and to take it all in. The UTMB atmosphere is unique! It also meant Jenny was totally immersed in this event and she was back as my Head of Logistics as we call it and man, how awesome she is at it! Merci darling.
We arrived in Chamonix from Spain, on a tight schedule (10:30am Friday) and after dropping the luggage at the hotel went straight to collect my race bib. I really wanted to take my time at the Salon de l’Ultra-Trail to enjoy the buzz, walk, relax and chat. Mostly I wanted to go to the Marathon des Sables booth to speak with the guys and introduce myself. I know it’s weird, the dude is racing UTMB in less than 5hours but he wants to speak about the MDS.
Plenty would argue I could have focused on the UTMB itself and spend more time resting at the hotel but no. To me the MDS is a dream and this was a chance to get closer to it. By chance, Patrick Bauer was there and I was able to talk to him about his race, the equipment and the fact that I would see him in the desert in October. It made it all even more real and I was over the moon.
Back at the hotel after a nice lunch in the sun with my love, I tried to close my eyes for a bit. I knew I could go one night running without sleep but the second night would be trickier. I had purposely done a daily 20min nap before coming to Chamonix, to get used to sleeping quickly. My mind was racing, no nap. I look at the clock: 14:16!
Suddenly you realise you need to be ready in an hour (wave 1 started at 17:00 but the entry in the sas was between 15:00 and 15:30 for Covid reasons) and your race pack is not even done. The next 45min is something I will likely hear about for a long time.
A quick kit lay
I lay down all the food, bottles, mandatory kit, spare clothing…on the floor. We can no longer see the carpet and I am kneeling to organise meticulously each item into my race bag. Jenny can’t believe her eyes! On one side she looks through the window and see runners walking into the sas area fully geared, prepared and calm. On the other side of the room, her husband is in boxer shorts surrounded by what looks like a massive mess of clothing, shoes and sweets. I must admit, I was way too late to do this and I should have come back to the hotel earlier (but there was the MDS booth at the Salon!).
Very composed and helpful she sat down next to me and started to go through the checklist with me, sorting out settings of my race phone (new generation Nokia 3310 kind of thing) and making sure I was taking all I needed. Phew! 15:25 we walked out of the hotel and said goodbye. She left and went onto running the first section of the race herself. Such a nice way for her to live fully the UTMB experience. I entered the sas at 15:30 and sat down on the grass in the sun. Then I was able to close my eyes for a bit.
Chamonix to Les Houches
Chamonix to Les Houches is an 8km flat section where most runners go fast, too fast. In 2017 my friend Romain Groleau and I didn’t go fast but we didn’t go slow either. We took it easy, but not easy + 5%. Robbie & Sophie said to me: “at the start, go slow Pierre, go really easy…let the fast geezer overtake you…he’ll gain 15sec on you but you’ll get 1h on him on the 2nd half of the course”. As I couldn’t see any fast geezer, I considered everyone as fast geezers and let them all overtake me. I was not really running, I was hardly jogging. I didn’t even hike the 2 little lumps of that section, I walked them.
The weather was stunning, clear sky and shorts & tee shirt temperatures. I was having fun, I was watching the crowds in both disbelief and amusement. The number of people cheering runners on the UTMB course (mostly in the villages Les Houches, St Gervais, Les Contamines…) is like nothing I have ever witnessed on a trail running competition before. It’s magical, it lifts you up. It carries you and that is why “fast geezers” get carried away and pay the price later in the race. I believe this is a big reason explaining the very high DNF rate.
After a few hours, running sensations are still good. I feel light and try to keep a tall stride on the flat, a dynamic but controlled one downhill and an easy hike uphill. As per Shane Benzie’s advice, I aim for elasticity in the way I move. I do not feel any soreness, food and fluids are going in well.
Arrête du Mont Fabre
The night goes very well, I am having a good time and I feel free running by night in these beautiful mountains. Arriving on top of Arrête du Mont Fabre I stop and switch off my head torch to look at the sky. Mont Blanc is on my left side surrounded by a clear sky full of stars. I can’t believe how peaceful the night is, how stunning these trails are and how lucky I am to be able to be here to witness such beauty. I love this sport.
I arrived in Courmayeur with relatively fresh legs and feeling good despite a short “down” going up to Col de la Seigne. I took my time to rest, ate some pasta, soup and biscuits. I also dried my feet, changed socks and shoes. There was no rush and I knew the next 50km to Champex Lac was an important section for me. It was there that I had lost so much time in 2017. I wanted to do better this time and enjoy the ascent to Grand Col Ferret.
I will now keep a much nicer memory of Grand Col Ferret. The climb was long but not a single runner passed me during those 90min, I was pleased. I didn’t mind the strong winds and low temperatures, I was still running/hiking in shorts (+ windproof jacket and gloves) and moving comfortably on the trails. Knowing well what to expect on the other side I decided to pace myself for the descent. I ran all of it focusing on my nutrition and on my running style: kept a light and controlled footing to avoid breaking too much with the quads. I knew the last 50km of the race to be technical and very tough. I needed to save as much energy as possible but also to progress as best as I could.
La Giète, Catogne and La Tête aux Vents: toughest part of the race in my opinion. Partly because we were all tired obviously but also because at that point it felt like the route made us do 3 x 900m+ & 900m- which is a bit more monotonous. Also because there are more rocks and huge boulders in these 3 climbs than in the rest of the race.
At Trient CP I once again ate some solid warm food as I started to feel low in energy despite my best efforts to eat regularly. Legs were starting to disapprove of the duration of this little adventure. Uphill sections were slower, downhill sections were slower too but now they were also sore. Quadriceps were definitely angry with me.
Fatigue started to kick in and just before 18:00pm I got two successive hallucinations (saw a sleeping dog and a speechless gorilla, they were both just logs) in less than half an hour. I knew from 2017 what that meant and what it would lead to: extreme fatigue, slow movement, danger. I had to stop and sleep.”
I had no choice if I wanted to finish this race in safe conditions. I also knew that I would recover better post UTMB if I was able to rest there and then, and that would count towards MDS. I started to look for a safe spot to sleep. The problem was that I was in a very tricky section of the course. The path going up to Catogne is rather narrow (2 people width) with rocks on one side and a ravine on the other. I couldn’t stop anywhere as I didn’t trust myself not to move during my sleep and roll into the ravine.
Also, earlier in the day I had to stop because a snake was crossing the trail I was on, and since I had seen many holes that looked like “snake houses”, I was cautious not to sleep near one.
It took me about 20min to find “my camp”: a massive pine tree surrounded by a big rock was protecting the ravine side, that was my safety blanket. I laid down my waterproof trousers on the floor, put on my jacket, removed my race pack and used it as a pillow.
Time for a nap?
It was 18:04 Saturday 28th August, I had been racing for 25h and had been awake for 35h straight. I was on my own on the trails (albeit surrounded by racers somewhere in front and behind me) close to 2000m of altitude but yet I was very happy to lie down for a power nap. Some might think, why didn’t you sleep earlier, at Trient CP for example…? Simply because the plan was not to sleep, in mind I was racing. But once the hallucinations happened I knew I had no choice if I wanted to carry on racing safely.
Writing these lines I surprise myself and realise how lucid I was and how much details I put into setting up this camp. I strongly believe that experience in the outdoors played a big part in this. Personally, I feel comfortable sleeping outside, whether it’s in the mountains, in the woods in London, on my balcony or even in the desert (soon!). When I was younger I used to go camping most summers with my parents in the Alps and on a few occasions we did some wild camping. They remain my best family holiday souvenirs as a kid.
This improvised bed felt so nice, it was unbelievably comfortable. Lying down and resting every single muscle of my body after moving for so long in difficult terrain was like heaven. I put the alarm on my watch for 10min. I closed my eyes and woke up after exactly 6min when a runner asked kindly if I was ok. I indicated yes with a thumb up and took 2 more minutes to emerge, thinking “oh well, you just lost 1 place in the ranking, never mind”.
I counted 4 more runners passing by which annoyed me a bit and motivated me to get up and move again. Just as I started moving, 2 more runners came hiking energetically. I let them go and tried to keep up with them, thinking they were faster than I was before my nap but it was worth a shot.
The first 5-10min were tough as I was still waking up and felt like a zombie. Then, once my eyes were fully opened and focused, I felt some new power in my legs.
The sound of their poles on the rocky ground was like music to my ears, it gave me a rhythm. I was now pushing harder than pre-nap, hands on thighs and eyes starring at their shoes.
Although the following descent was not easy, it felt so much more bearable than before. I knew I had made the right call by stopping and sleeping. That cheered me up for the remaining part of the race, it gave me confidence that I would complete the loop maintaining a similar pace and ranking.
Tête aux Vents
The last climb to Tête aux Vents was like nothing I could describe. No real path to walk on, just massive rocks randomly placed on top of each other. They went up for almost 800m+ and when I finally saw a path again I thought it was done. Forget it, the path carried on and up with undulating terrain and it was some time before we started the descent to La Flégère.
I don’t know why I was looking forward to the descent to Chamonix as by then my quads had already gone to bed. Impossible to control my footing adequately, knees were buckling constantly and the pain was intense. I didn’t want to fall now, I didn’t want to arrive in Chamonix trashed. Obviously, I would be exhausted and damaged but I didn’t want to take unnecessary risks descending and eventually compromise my recovery for the MDS.
My race was done, I had achieved what I had come to do. I was happy. I accepted I would need a bit longer to go down to the finish and tried to forget the numbing pain in my quads. Kilometres were passing by very slowly on my watch but I was in my own little bubble.
I knew Jenny was waiting for me near the river in Chamonix. I knew we would finish together, side by side, like in our day to day life in London. Water came out of my eyes as I visualised that finish, and it does again now finishing to write this story. Thank you Lupi for being you, with me. I love you. Merci Chamonix. Merci UTMB. We will be back, but not yet, not yet.
Notes to futures UTMB competitors: UTMB is not a running race, it is not a hiking competition but it’s a food eating challenge. Stuff your face and go easy, easy + 5%.
Congratulations to Pierre on completing the UTMB challenge, we look forward to following you on your Marathon Des Sables conquest!
… and don’t forget to read Iain’s account of the UTMB 2021 too!