Friday, 13 September 2013

Ultra-Trail Du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) 2013 race report

It's taken me until now to find the energy and will to return to the Alps and write this race report. A week to let the dust settle and get my head around the whole UTMB experience (and then another week to write it!). And what an experience it was! The highs and the lows both figuratively speaking and in ascent were some of the most contrasting I have ever experienced. Whether I can reflect the magnitude of this event in the next few (too many) pages is doubtful. So much has been written about this race and there are already some good blogs out there from the 2013 race including front runner and fellow Buff team member Anton Krupicka, as well as a fellow Brit Simon James whom I ran the whole of the second half of the race with. So check them out (but read mine first ;-) This is my reflection on my race, how it went for me, my thoughts and emotions including the hallucinations! All I would say here and now is that the only way of really knowing what the UTMB is all about is not to read about it but to get your name in the ballot and give it ago yourself... Go on you know you want to!! Why would you be reading this otherwise!?

I was very well rested as I stood on the start line of UTMB in the centre of Chamonix. A full week of no running preceded the start as the family and I enjoyed a fantastic time at Eurodisney.

Lili and Jasper with Pluto!
An 8 hour drive saw us arrive in Chamonix on the Wednesday with the race start at 4:30pm on the Friday. The time in between was spent in the local playgrounds with the children, soaking up the amazing atmosphere as you walked around the town centre, swimming, and eating lots of ice cream!

I was really relaxed and thoroughly looking forward to the adventure that lay ahead. Registration was on Thursday which involved a lengthy wait. There were 2,300 entrants so it was always going to take some time. The sun was beating down as Nick Ham (another fellow Brit and good ultra-runner friend) and I waited in line. The amazing views of the Mont Blanc glacier and atmosphere made the wait no problem and I soon had my hands on what is surely the best looking race number (or dossier as the French call it) out there. It also matched my new Union Jack Buff that my sponsors had very kindly managed to get to me just the day before we left England :-) Thanks Buff!!
Isn't she a stunner!
With the unusual late afternoon start Nick and I had Friday to kick around the apartment, prepare all our gear, have our final meal (sweet potato and sausages for me) and get to the start for the prerace party-like celebrations complete with electro-euro-pop blarring out the speakers that were located all over the centre of town.

Nick and I all set to go!
Dino Ilari (another fellow Brit and friend) and I made our way to the start line with half an hour to go as the crowds grew. Unfortunately I'd lost Nick Ham as he got chatting to other British runners in his usual enigmatic style. It seemed he knew half of Chamonix! We couldn't get to the front but managed to get down a side street and ease our way into the main pack well within the top third as other runners were being funnelled to the back. The countdown to 4:30 heightened the atmosphere further as the music got more intense and the comparer positively encouraged runners to hold their hands aloft and join hands in a show of solidarity to the challenge that lay ahead. It was rocking!!! At 4:28 the famous UTMB music (Conquest of Paradise - Vangelis) played out across the start and we were set on our way with emotions running high. Chamonix was positively heaving with adrenaline and energy as we charged (slowly) through the town. If the rest of the race was as good as the start then we were in for something very special.
The start in Chamonix!!
My wife and children were able to get a good spot further down the street as I passed them giving them all a kiss goodbye. If all went well I would be seeing them again in 35-40hrs time. But I preferred not to think about that and instead in the words of legend Lizzy Hawker 'stay in the moment'. This was the approach I would need to take to get through this one and with that we left Chamonix and headed onwards to Les Houches.

In retrospect it would have been good to know that the next 5 miles were the flattest we would experience over the next 3 days. I ignored everyone else's pace and just set about getting into a comfortable rhythm. 3 or so miles in and Nick caught me up and we chatted about the adventure ahead. I then heard another familiar voice. It was Chris Howe from Kingston Uni Sports Science department who oversaw my heat training sessions for WSER. Everyone was on a real high with expectations of what was to come. The weather undoubtedly heightened the mood as the forecast for the whole weekend was clear skies and warm. This is in contrast to the previous three years at UTMB which experienced the worst mountain weather possible. I felt fortunate and was determined to savour every moment and make the very most of it.

Les Houches (4.9 miles) was the first water stop as I took the opportunity to refill one of my water bottles before the first climb and the frenzy of walking poles begins. I quickly got into a nice comfortable stride on the climb using my poles to maximum effect and set about making up some ground on those in front. Climbing is definitely my strength so whilst I would lose a bit of ground on the flats I passed plenty of runners heading up to the summits.

Climb up from Les Houches (Dino in red just behind)
I reached Le Delevret in 713th position with 2hrs of running/hiking under the belt. A quick scan of the electronic chip on the number and I set off for Saint Gervais which was the first major food stop at the bottom of the valley. To get there required descending several thousand feet firstly down some pretty steeply graded ski pistes and then on to a long series of very runnable switchbacks through the trees that took us all the way to the valley floor.

Entering Saint Gervais (13 miles) at just gone 7pm was like hitting party central. There were crowds everywhere cheering and clapping and you could have been easily mistaken for thinking you were at the finish line. I was in 819th position at this point having deliberately tried to hold back on the last section and take it easy. The food at the station was a variety of sweet and savoury. Plenty of French cheeses, salamis and breads, cake, fruit and hot drinks. I didn’t hang around for the party though and gobbled up a few snacks, filled by bottles and headed for the next station at Les Contamines. In my haste though as I exited the station I realised I was poleless as I had put them down when filling up by bottles. A quick dash back along the entire length of the station to retrieve them and I was set.

I was moving well and feeling strong. Memories of the next few sections are few and far between. There were plenty of runnable sections along the valley floor before we started to hike up with a mix of tarmac to start and then back onto trail. I made up over 200 places on this section coming into Les Contamines (19 miles) in 593rd place, and my overall pace was well below sub 35hrs at this point. I was obviously doing something right, or in fact was everyone else doing something right whilst I was going too fast. This thought however didn't cross my mind as my pace felt quite pedestrian with all the places being made up on the climbs.

Coming into Les Contamines aid station at mile 19
The miles and climbs continued and I hit La Balme in 527th place at 10:15pm. 24 miles in the bag with 5h:44m of running. I was covering good ground with almost a quarter of the race already under the belt. The night was warm not needing any leg or arm cover even up the climbs at over 2000 metres. There was a little breeze which helped to keep things cool and not get overly warm from the exertion on the climbs. Throughout the night I struck up conversation with those that I ran briefly with. It was apparent however that the French do not speak a lot when running even to their own natives which made it doubly challenging to get them to speak to me. In contrast British Ultra Runners I feel like to share the ultra-experience and will happily chat away for hours to anyone that will listen. For the Europeans it seems to be a far more solitary experience.

Under torch light you could only see what was immediately in front of you and thus what we were missing out on was the spectacular views that were no doubt all around us as we crested peak after peak. The benefit however is that you weren't witness to just how long the next climb was as you stayed within your own little bubble of light with other torch beams stretched out for a mile in both directions. Throughout the night I continued to make up more places with strong hiking and a minimum time spent at the aid stations. Again in contrast it seemed that the Europeans would happily spend far longer in the stations perhaps even 20-30 minutes at every major stop. Did they know something I didn't or was this just the UTMB way of doing things. My feeling however was that there is no point exerting yourself up a climb and making up lots of places only to lose all these places by sitting around and drinking tea and eating cake. Perhaps next time though ;-)

So I pushed on as it was the only way I knew how and was thoroughly enjoying the whole UTMB experience. In the first night I didn't suffer from any fatigue or tiredness whatsoever. I arrived into Les Chapieux (31 miles) in 486th position at half past midnight. And by Col Chécrouit (45.5 miles) I was up to 397th place at just before 5am. This was suppose to be a water only aid station but the friendly volunteers had made some homemade snacks. I had this lovely grilled vegetable tartlet which really hit this spot. It was also here where I saw my position in the race on the laptop that they had set up on the table. Kriszti had relayed to me earlier in the race that I was around 800th but I had no idea how many places I had made up since then. It certainly didn't feel like 400! With this new information I felt great and bounded down the trail like nothing could stop me. That feeling was short lived…

The sun hadn't yet risen and the next section would continue all the way down into Courmayeur in Italy (although at the time I had no idea that I had crossed the boarder and in my funk it just hadn’t occurred to me). The descent started off quite gradual but then turned into a very long series of continuous steep switch backs along a dusty trail that clogged your lungs. This was the least fun I'd had so far in the race as the switch backs seemed never ending with Courmayeur getting no closer. Finally though after what seemed like an eternity we hit the valley floor and ran through the narrow cobbled streets of Courmayeur towards the aid station (48 miles). Dawn was breaking slowly as I entered the sports centre to the applause of the wonderful spectators. I was greeted by a volunteer with my drop bag. Here I could replenish my stocks of gels, cliff bars, nutella pancakes and homemade energy bar as well as change into a fresh Buff shirt and socks. I had a spare pair of shoes but there was no need to change them as the La Sportiva Crosslites were superb! It was the very first time I had sat down in 13 hours and boy did it feel good. I had forgotten that I'd also placed a toffee fudge Friggii milkshake in my bag. That was heavenly! I wasn't in a rush to leave here but went slowly through the motions of getting all my kit together and back out.

Dawn had finally broken when I exited the building and made my way through the quiet town and inevitably starting to climb again. Firstly on a steep road and then onto a never ending series of switch backs that wound up the trial that went on and on and on. Despite the food I had taken on at the stop I was still feeling empty and in need of more energy and calories. I took a stop on a rock about half way up and ate a cliff bar and pancake. At this point my reserves were now empty and I was eating just enough to continue on for a while longer before having to refuel again. From here things felt that little bit harder both physically and mentally, and is really where the real race began. The first 50 miles was just a warm up.
The views made even the toughest climbs a joy (honest!!)
I made it to Refuge Bertone (51 miles) in 15h:10m which give or take a mile or so was the halfway point. I was in 386th position which was my highest placing of the race so far. But it would be fair to say that I was feeling it just a little, nevertheless I was confident I still had a sub 35hr finish in me, and doing the maths I had a 5 hour cushion to play with. This wasn’t exactly my thinking when I rocked up here though… What I needed was coffee and lots of it! I had two mugs of the black stuff, and some noodle soup too. The soup acts as a great electrolyte to restore the balance in your body. I was getting cold though as I sat on a bench in my shorts and short sleeve T chatting to two local chaps. Seeing this one of them put a nice thick blanket around my shoulders. What service! I could have stayed there a lot longer as that last 3 mile climb did take it out of me but this wasn’t going to get me closer to the finish line so I said my goodbyes and thanks and moved up the trail.

The sun had made an appearance and it was apparent that it was going to be a warm day. Once I crested the top a little further up the trail it become much flatter however for the first time in the race I was the one being passed. I simply don’t run flats well in ultras! If I have a weakness this is it, and I think it’s down to my lack of flexibility which is made worst when your muscles tighten after running such distances. And then as you slow and your stride shortens this shortens your muscle contractions which makes things lock up even more, and slow down more. A vicious cycle! Subsequently I gave away 80 places between here and the next station.

The views across the valley though were amazing with the snow-capped mountain peaks jutting up high into piercing blue skies to my left. I sat down on a grassy patch by a stream and phoned the wife for some moral support (which worked :-)  I ate some more and headed onwards to Refuge Bonatti.

New Flash: Ultra Disco Stu finds a flat section of UTMB
I arrived at the aid station at 9:33am after 17hrs of running and 55.5 miles and got the surprise of my life. As I came up the trail to the aid station entrance who should be standing there but no other than Lizzy Hawker!!! 5 time winner of the UTMB and the most inspirational of ultra-runners. I had only been reading her blog the day before on her experiences of UTMB and how one should tackle such a race - 'stay in the moment' was her advice. I gave Lizzy a big hug and told her what a boost it was to my morale to see her here. My mood was lighter and I was feeling 100 times more positive about the race again. I got a cup of tea and chatted with Lizzy. I told her how my race was going (which was well up to a point but I felt the wheels coming off) and asked what advice she could give me to get my race back on track. She replied 'baby steps' just take each section at a time and don't look too far ahead. I was buzzing with positive energy from meeting her and set off up the trail with new vigour and purpose. I caught up with two French runners soon after who were running a nice even tempo pace that I felt I could try and match so I just fell in line behind them not saying anything but matching their every stride. After the loneliness of the previous section it was nice to have this connection with others in the race again. It helped my placing too as I stopped losing places and actually made up 5 places arriving into Arnuva at half ten in the morning in 461th position. I was still in the top 500 and feeling really positive about my race.

Arnuva (59 miles) was a food stop and was also the last place to fill water bottles before a big 10 mile section which consisted of a massive climb up to the top of Grand Col Ferret and then a long gradual descent down to La Fouly. One volunteer was making it very apparent for the need to take on plenty of fluids and restock as it was getting really hot out there now. There were quite a few Brits at this aid station and I sat down next to Simon who looked like he could do with some company. I tucked into a feast of cheese, salami, bread, noodle soup and cola and James and I chatted about both our races. James had had a tough last section and was considering taking a nap in the tent set up with lots of beds. I didn't think this was a particularly good idea and suggested instead he may like to tag on with me. At first he wasn't keen and even suggested he was considering pulling out the race such was his pace but I just said that’s what you have to expect after almost 100km of very tough mountain trails. We chatted some more, ate some more and as I started to get my gear together to head out for the next section James said that he was coming too. Awesome I thought. James wasn't the only one in need of company and with that we started the long climb up Grand Col Ferret. It was a monster climb taking the best part of two hours to cover 3 miles. However it didn't feel so bad as we chatted for most of the way up and we also bumped into another Brit Sarah who lived out in the mountains in France and commented that she enjoyed listening to our banter.

James and I on the climb up to Grand Col Ferret (but didn't see any!)
We finally reached the top after midday and admired the amazing views back down the valley before the descent to La Fouly. We were in 490th position now and getting on for 20 hours of running. Our progress was slow in this section but still enjoyable nevertheless. By the time we got to La Fouly (67.4 miles) we both felt pretty wiped out. We took the time to refuel taking on board more noodle soup, cheese, salami etc. Have you spotted the pattern yet!! J It was apparent from looking around the aid station that many were feeling the same fatigue. I also met James' girlfriend Karin at this stop who was supporting him throughout the entire race by getting the bus to every aid station to be there when he arrived. She would be out there for the same amount of time as it took for us to complete the event and with the same lack of sleep! I could tell it was a boost for James to have her there and in a way we formed a team of three now that James and I had committed to crossing the finish line together. So the pattern emerged that James and I would just focus of getting through the next section whatever it threw at us, get to the aid station to meet up with Karin, refuel, refocus, and repeat. Simple!

The long descent to La Fouly
We left La Fouly in 602nd position and were still just under 35hr pace, and continued to Champex-Lac which was another monster 9 mile section. Between here and the finish every section seemingly contained a climb and descent bigger than the last. This made for very slow going.

We were now out of Italy and into Switzerland and there was a notable change in the scenery with the typical Swiss log cabins scattered on the green mountain sides. To stay focused and not lose too much time now that we were pretty much hiking, James suggested that we use each of the UTMB course markers which were literally every 50 metres along the entire route to run between and then walk the next - much like a Fartlek session but in slow motion. So this is what we did running between two markers then walking the next and repeating. It kept us occupied and moving forward with a new found purpose. The climbs continued and probably the most mentally tough period was coming up which was running into the second night of the run. As mentioned before I didn't suffer from any fatigue during the first night and was wide awake. Arriving into Bovine aid station after 9pm it was now dark and they had a fire roaring. This was a non-refreshment stop and was only there to scan our racing chips. We had now been running for almost 29 hours and it was officially my longest run! The total height gain since the start in Chamonix to this point was 7,748 metres which is like climbing to the summit of Everest from basecamp and back down, almost twice! For James too he was into completely new territory. His longest run had been 80 miles of the Ridgeway ultra which he completed in around 17 hours. UTMB was his first 100 mile ultra, and at this point he'd already been on his feet for 12 hours longer than his previous longest run. That’s either very impressive or just plain daft… you decide! I know he’ll read this so thought I’d throw that in. lol.

We were now at the business end of the race now. We knew we had a long night ahead of us but both of us were still not willing to acknowledge just how much time it would potentially take us to cover the remaining 20 or so miles. If someone told me at Bovine that we would be running for another 13 hours I think it would have been too much to bare. Damn… I’ve just given away the end ;-) But seriously that’s an average speed of just 1.5mph (or 40 minute miling!!). And trust me when I say we were trying!!! Our strategy of just focusing on the next section and taking 'baby steps' (quite literally!) was working. We were moving forward and however difficult the struggle was becoming to stay focused and reach the top of the next climb the end was getting closer.

I think I will save you (“the reader”) from going into chapter and verse about the never ending night section. It can instead be summarised with the following which describes the next 10 hours of running before the sun came up for the third day of this epic run: rocks & roots, bright stars & moon light, extreme fatigue & emptiness, long long long descents & never ending climbs, camaraderie & laughter, chocolate & cheese, noodle soup & hallucinations, new friendships & bonds, heaven & hell. And then finally out of the darkness and into the light!

But just before we get there… We reached Vallorcine at just gone 4am after 35 hours of running.  With a little over 10 miles to go this was the first time where we perhaps allowed ourselves to think about the finish. Up until this point it just seemed too far away but now it was getting closer and soon the new dawn would break. This didn't however mean that the hard work was done and in fact the final major climb of 850 metres of vertical ascent up La Tête aux vents was the most dramatic and toughest of the entire race. This was partly because I was by this point almost sleep walking using my poles to guide me forward as I staggered and swayed up the trail. I was now on autopilot and felt like a passenger in my own body with little control over my movement as I floated along at a snails pace. Baby steps baby steps was all I was capable of by now. James by contrast seemed more with it at this point and led the way up the climb. We eventually made it to the top taking almost 4hrs to cover the 5 miles. An hour longer than my marathon PB to cover just 5 miles! I’m not sure this was running anymore but it was a beast!

I can't miss out and should add that on our way up the final climb one Mr Nick Ham came hiking past us looking fresh as a daisy and still sporting his ultra-short union jack shorts! There was hardly any time for pleasantries as Nick carried right on whilst I had stopped to refuel. I hoped to catch him by the top but on this kind of terrain a 5 minute gap is nearly impossible to make up easily. The descent down to La Flégère (99 miles) was another rock strew trail with lots of hopping over boulders and tentative positioning of feet and limbs as we picked our way down. By now however the sun was out and a new day had broken. Our slow pace had long since been of any cause for concern or anguish. Our overall placing too was something we had also surrendered long ago. By this point we had a vague idea of being in the top 1,000 but this detail was unimportant. All we cared about was finishing the UTMB. In fact this was the only thought that had been carrying us forward for the last 20 hours. It was survival.

About to get "chicked" on the descent to La Flegere
James and I high-fived as we passed the 40 hour mark in our epic run. Neither of us honestly expected to be still out running at this point in the race. Earlier on when I was going great guns I had plans of being back in the apartment and tucked up in bed by 3am and here we were gone 8am and still moving towards the finish. The final hours were easier going and mostly flat or downhill. However downhill in UTMB at this stage of the race or in fact any stage still required a tremendous amount of focus to stay upright, maintain good footing and avoid any silly mistakes. I managed all three! My friend Dino also came past us on the descent from the last climb. Like Nick he was moving well and enjoying his race. I think he could hardly believe that he had caught me. At 30 miles into the race I had held over a 2 hour advantage but that time had since evaporated.
The end in sight and a little more cheery!
The finish was now within touching distance. The last aid station at La Flegere was perched at the top of a chair lift which came up from the valley far below. And in the distance we could see Chamonix which was less than 5 miles away now. This was all that stood between us and finishing what was undoubtedly the toughest run of my life (yes, way way tougher than Western States by a mountain mile!). We found our legs again and managed a good clip down the side of the downward piste. The pounding of the quads was of little concern anymore as there was no need to preserve them now. Off the wider piste and we were back onto narrower trails with the all too familiar roots and rocks. However nothing could spoil this moment as we edged our way closer and closer, down the trail losing height with every step. We came back out of the woods and onto the wider piste/trail that marked the final run into Chamonix.

And whilst I can scarcely remember the exact point where we left the trail for the last time we entered the outskirts of Chamonix at the foot of the mountain. It was now just gone 10am so there were plenty of people about cheering us along in our final mile through the town. A few lefts and few rights and we saw the familiar sight of the ice blue river that passes right through the centre. We followed it along with less than a 1km to go. I was just running along trying to absorb everything that was happening. The emotion, the smiling faces, the shoppers, the warmth of the sun on my face, and the finishers proudly wearing their UTMB Gillets that had probably long since finished!

We entered the final twists and turns of the course where barriers had been set up to funnel you to that well known of sights that is the 'UTMB finish' in front of the church. The moment I had dreamed of. 25 yards before the finish Kriszti was there by the side with Lili and Jasper. It was so good to see them again. Daddy daddy shouted Lili as she spotted me and I waved to her with the biggest smile on my face. I was so proud of them as a wave of emotion hit me. Running is just running but family is everything and they were here for me for my moment. And that is why it's a memory to cherish forever. Memories and experiences that are shared makes them 100 times more valuable, and this is why it was so special to share this race with my family, as well someone else alongside me in James. We approached the UTMB finish arch with our arms held aloft to the warm applause of the crowd. It really did feel like we had just won the race. You really won't find any other finish line atmosphere quite like it anywhere else in the world. And that was it. We had finished the UTMB crossing the finish line in joint 950th position after 41h:47m:09s. It was finally over and it felt AMAZING.


I stood there for just a moment trying taking it all in, in one of those movie like moments where the past 24hrs (in our case nearly 42hrs) flashes through your mind in an instant. My mind wandered before a volunteer brought me back into the present and gave me the coveted UTMB FINISHER Gillet. Mission accomplished. I was not going to stop until I had this in my hands and with that I could close the book on one hell of a chapter in my ultra-running career.

Nick and I sporting our matching finishers UTMB gillets (and shorts!)
This next bit is going to sound like an Oscars awards speech but I have to thank my wife and family for their unwavering support not just this year but in all the years that I have run, trained and dreamt of completing this race (and others including Western). I’m looking forward to not getting up at 4am for my Saturday morning long runs. At least for now anyway ;-) There is always something else around the corner as us ultra-runners know only too well, but for now Western States and UTMB in the same year is not something that can easily be topped. And so with that I think I'm going to savour this feeling and reflect back on one hell of a year for the months to come.

My thanks also to my sponsor Buff who provided me with some great race kit that performed superbly in the mountains. I just wish it was a bit colder so I could have used my Buff Gore-tex integrated hood. Perhaps next year ;-)

Post-race recovery at Passi lake south of Chamonix!


  1. Great post Stu!! Incredible feat that covers the full spectrum of emotional and physical extremes!! Well done and thanks for sharing it with us!
    Scott Brown

  2. You are nuts, you know that!!! Good work Stu!

    1. Haha yep Luke even I came to the realisation out there that this was truly a stupid (in a good way) thing to do!! :-) any more Tough Mudders planned!!?