by Clare Abram
The Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) is probably on every ultrarunner’s bucket list, an iconic 104.2 mile route that passes through France, Italy and Switzerland, circumnavigating Mont Blanc with 31,500ft of elevation gain, to be completed in 46 hours. About 2300 runners start the UTMB, but in combination with its partner races, the TDS, CCC, PTL, and the new OCC, almost 10,000 runners come together for a week long celebration on the trails around Mont Blanc.
Scott LaBerge and I ran the 2013 race, and if I had to describe the trip in one word…it would be “Epic”. But I wrote a few more words, so if UTMB is on your bucket list, I hope this report is useful. Here goes…
First step…get in.
Obviously if you’re a fabulous North Face athlete, there might be other avenues to race entry!…but for the Joe Schmoes, you have to get enough qualifying points to enter the lottery and hope for some luck. The website (www.ultratrailmb.com) has a ton of information on it, but it can seem a little overwhelming and sometimes I felt as if I had to look in a lot of different places to get all the information. The very first thing to do is create your Runner’s page by setting up a member’s account, which involves some personal information, a user name and a password. The website is all in English,
and now you get access to all the race details. Look out for a couple of odd translations that could be a little confusing…starting with how to log off!…(hit the little arrow symbol that comes up next to your name that says “Se déconnecter”). Note that the following deadlines apply to entry for the 2014 race.
To qualify for entry into the UTMB lottery, you have to gain points by competing in qualifying races. The number of qualifying points required for the 2014 race is 7, and these points have to be gained over a 2 year period (from Jan 1st 2012 to Dec 31st 2013) in a maximum of 3 races. Participating races are awarded 1, 2, 3 or 4 points depending on difficulty, most tough 100 mile races give you 4 points and tough 50 milers give you 2 points. To be absolutely certain of qualifying points, check the qualifying races link from your Runner’s page (you can search by Country to get a list, and State is translated as “Department”).
The pre-registration period is open from December 19th 2013 to January 6th 2014, when you complete the application form, pay a 50€ deposit and list your qualifying races. This form is available on your runner’s page between these dates and you can select your qualifying races from the pull down lists. “Classification” refers to your overall placement in the race, but for the most part, that all comes up automatically.
One of the great features of the lottery system is the ability to sign up as a group if you want to go with a buddy. A group can contain from 2-12 people. The first person to register for the race selects “Group registration” and will get a group number which you pass on to other members of your group to enter when they register. Individual group members can enter different races such as TDS or CCC and still be part of the group, and if you stick with the same group, your “extra tickets” advantage if you are unlucky in the lottery stay with your registration.
Then you wait until January 15th, 10am Paris time, 1am San Francisco time and cross your fingers.
If you are lucky, you then have to confirm your registration between January 15th and January 27th 2014, and pay the balance of your race entry fee (not listed on the website yet for 2014). If not, then you cry for a few minutes and move on to Plan B. As a five-ticket holder in this year’s Western States Lottery, I’m pretty good at Plan B!
Once registered, the only other deadline was to return the completed medical form by May 31st. The form was available in the Runner’s page, also in English, and just required a doctor’s signature confirming that we were fit enough for the challenge…which caused some raised eyebrows…physically, yes…but mentally!?
Step 2…make travel arrangements.
When is the best time to go? We flew out a week before the race, and returned home on the Tuesday after the race. This worked out really well for us…you get to arrive in the town early and see the excitement for the races build gradually. You can see the start of La Petite Trotte à Léon (PTL), the 200 mile trek round Mont Blanc, on the Wednesday night and see the first TDS finishers come in. You can do a few reccies on the course to get your bearings, have a good look round the “Salon Ultra-Trail” aka the Expo, go shopping…Chamonix has every single outdoor store you can imagine, and eat massive quantities of melted cheese. After the race, the town seemed to go “back to normal” fairly quickly.
We flew into Geneva, Switzerland and we rented a car for the 90 minute journey to Chamonix, although there was an option of arranging a shuttle through our accommodation. If you’re staying in Chamonix, you don’t actually need a car as many of the local attractions can be reached by trains or cable cars that leave right out of town. If you do rent a car, check that your accommodation comes with a parking space (parking is pretty tight in Chamonix), and rent something small!! Our accommodation came with a parking space in an underground parking garage that was the tightest spot you could imagine…anything bigger than our Ford Focus would’ve scraped the walls I’m sure.
Start looking at accommodation in or around Chamonix to get an idea what you want. Once the entry list gets published, there could be a rush on accommodation. We were lucky and knew we were in a year in advance because of a one time loser rule (now there’s a 2 time loser rule). There are lots of options for accommodation, hotels and apartments in town, chalets in the mountains nearby…we decided to stay smack bang in the middle of Chamonix, two minutes walk from the start/finish area, and we wanted a self-catering apartment for 4. I found this map really useful when looking at the different accommodation options in town: http://www.chamonix.net/sites/default/files/Attachments/Chamonix-Centre-Map.pdf
Our accommodation was arranged through http://mountain-base.com/ (a British company specializing in Chamonix accommodation, and I would highly recommend them)
I wanted an apartment with a view of Mont Blanc from the balcony…this is our actual apartment, and it was wonderful. It worked out at about 135€/night (US$180).
If your French is better than mine (not difficult!), there are a few sites that a French friend recommended where you might get something cheaper… http://www.locationchamonix.com/http://www.leboncoin.fr/locations_de_vacances/offres/rhone_alpes/?f=p&th=1&q=chamonix
For general tourist info about Chamonix… http://www.chamonix.net/
This is the hotel on the Start/Finish line at the Place Triangle de l’Amitié if you want to be really close!
and Robs Dad booked a room at the Hotel Alpina, pretty close to race day, which is right next to the Salon Ultra-trail…
Step 3…start training…hard!
As a bit of background, Scott and I have been running ultras for almost 10 years, and we’ve completed five 100 mile races, including Leadville, Cascade Crest, Superior Sawtooth and Pine to Palm. UTMB felt like a big step up in difficulty for us, and we were scared! And after seeing the course, there’s nothing remotely close to the length and steepness of the climbs round us in the California bay area, and we have full time jobs! So we did the best we could. Scott was lucky enough to get into Western States aswell, so we started training early in the year to be ready for that, and once he had his Western States buckle, yay! we focused more on hiking and climbing with packs and poles. For elevation, Chamonix is at 3396 feet and the high point of the race is at 8323 feet…so not crazy high, but enough to bother some people.
Some of the training runs and races we did in preparation included the Speedgoat 50k in Utah (my new 50K Personal Worst! But it really gave us an appreciation for the elevation gain we would be faced with), pacing at the Hardrock 100 in Colorado, and running sections of the Tahoe Rim Trail around Mount Rose and the Pacific Crest Trail between Sugar Bowl and Squaw ski resorts, which are at similar elevations to UTMB. We practiced with poles, its amazing how tired your arms and shoulders can get if you’re not used to them. And I got a shock the first time I put all my required gear into my pack, weighed it, and realized that it was 10lbs.
We tried to read up about the race as much as we could and began to obsess over the required gear list ☺. We received monthly UTMB newsletters in english with information about the race which were useful to read, and some other links we found useful included…
Bryon Powell’s gear list from 2011 and info from 2010 http://www.irunfar.com/2011/08/utmb-gear-quest-2011.htmlhttp://www.irunfar.com/2010/08/how-to-utmb-logistics-for-the-ultra-trail-du-mont-blanc.html Race Report and FAQs
Amy Sproston’s gear list for 2012 http://amysproston.blogspot.com/2012/09/utmb-gear-list.html Ellie Greenwood’s gear list for CCC
http://elliegreenwood.blogspot.com/2012/09/petzl-nao-review-and-other-ccc-gear.html Scott Dunlap’s 2012 race report
There are several videos on YouTube called “Get ready for…” featuring Sebastien Chaigneau running different portions of the course, and this is the 2013 race summary http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CP_s9vcg2v0
Step 4…figure out your “Obligatory Equipment”
Required gear!! We obsessed over this for over a year, and yes I paid $100 more for a pair of waterproof pants that were a few ounces lighter, that I never even took out of my pack!! But this list is specific and important…they want runners to have a certain level of responsibility for themselves if the weather turns bad, and it can turn really bad…they inspect your gear when you check in, and there was a gear inspection checkpoint on the course. And you want to at least start the race loving your pack!
We both used the Peter Bakwin Ultimate Direction Adventure Vest, and it worked really well. It took me a while to embrace the nipple bottles, still not super keen on them! But filling bottles at the busy aid stations was much easier than filling a bladder. I had found that with a full pack, I pretty much had to unpack everything to get the bladder in and out, which I wanted to avoid.
From the UTMB website: Obligatory material :
- mobile phone with option enabling its use in the three countries (put in one’s repertoire the security numbers of the organisation, keep it switched on, do not hide one’s number and do not forget to set off with recharged batteries) (iphone with international plan enabled worked fine for me)
- personal cup or tumbler 15cl minimum (water bottle not acceptable) (ultraspire cup)
- stock of water minimum 1 litre (2x 20oz Ultimate Direction bottles = just over 1 liter)
- two torches in good working condition with replacement batteries (I used the Petzl Nao, and one fully charged battery on the lower setting lasted me a whole night, then I had an additional battery charged and ready to use for the second night. It was a popular choice with other runners too. Scott used the LED Lenser SEO5 and changed the batteries once each night. We carried poles the entire way so our backup light was just a handheld flashlight that we never needed. A really good headlight is one of the most important pieces of equipment in my opinion)
- survival blanket 1.40m x 2m minimum*
- whistle (built into the Ultimate Direction vest)
- adhesive elastic band enable making a bandage or a strapping (mini 100cm x 6 cm)*
- food reserve (see section on aid station food)
- jacket with hood and made with a waterproof (recommendation: minimum 10,000 Schmerber) and breathable (recommendation: RET lower than 13) membrane (Gore-Tex or similar) which will withstand the bad weather in the mountains (Arc’teryx beta FL Goretex jacket)
- long running trousers or leggings or a combination of leggings and long socks which cover the legs completely (North Face running tights)
- Additional warm midlayer top: One single midlayer long sleeve top for warmth (cotton excluded) with a minimum weight of 180g (Men, size M) OR a two piece clothing combination of a long sleeve baselayer/midlayer for warmth (cotton excluded) with a minimum weight of 110g (Men, size M) and a windproof jacket* with DWR (Durable Water Repellent) protection (Smartwool long sleeve top)
- cap or bandana (Mountain Hardware Apparition running cap, super light and folds up small; and you can’t run in Europe without a Buff! Good for headgear, or just blowing your nose on)
- warm hat (fleece cap)
- warm and waterproof gloves (Seirus Xtreme All Weather gloves)
- waterproof over-trousers (Arc’teryx beta SL Goretex rain pants)
- * The windproof jacket does not replace the mandatory waterproof jacket with hood
Required by the frontier police forces:
- identity papers (we carried our passports)
Very strongly recommended:
- Knife or scissors with which to cut the self-adhesive elasticised bandage*
- walking poles for security on slippery ground in case of rain or snow (Black Diamond Ultra Distance Trekking poles, not adjustable but sold in four different sizes depending on your height, they are super light so be careful not to get them wedged in between rocks or they might snap)
- a change of warm clothes indispensable in the case of cold weather, rain or injury
- the sum of 20 euros minimum (in order to cover the unexpected….)
Advised (list not definitive):
Telescopic sticks, change of clothing, compass, knife, string, sun cream, Vaseline or anti-chaffing cream, needle and thread,… All clothing must be the runner’s size and without alteration since leaving the factory. You will carry this material in a pack which must be tagged at the race-bib distribution and is not exchangeable during the race. If you decide to use poles, you must keep them throughout the whole of the race… It is forbidden to start without sticks and recover them up along the way. No poles will be allowed in the spare’s bags.
*at the UTMB booth at the Salon Ultra-Trail, they sold small packs that included the exact regulation emergency blanket and elastic adhesive tape, a tiny knife and basic foot first aid in a convenient pouch. Worth the $.
Also worth the $ is buying a race belt at the Salon Ultra-Trail. The race rules insist that your bib is fixed to your top…so no scrunching, folding and pinning it to your skirt/shorts! For a 46 hour race, who knows how your wardrobe choices will unfold, and the race belt was a popular option with runners.
The website also said it was mandatory to have “ownership of individual accident insurance covering possible expenses of search and rescue in France, Italy and Switzerland. Such insurance maybe taken out with any agent of your choice. If you are a member of the French Federation of Athletics, you maybe already have this cover”. After some research, the coverage offered by the FFA is only for French citizens. Other options include checking your health insurance plan as it might cover something like this, or buying a one year membership to the American Alpine Club which will get you
$5000 of international trailhead rescue and evacuation, or coverage can be purchased from credit card companies like Amex. We were never required to show evidence of this.
Step 5…in Chamonix
Do I need to speak French? A little helps, but Chamonix is so international that everyone seemed to speak some English, and during the race, you’ll hear all kinds of languages. Sign language worked pretty well too!
We got great advice from John Catts to see the following parts of the course during the week before the race:
We ran from the Start in Chamonix to Les Houches and back (6 miles one way) to see the first 6 miles of the race, the easiest and possibly the only flat section of the entire route. Definitely a good start to get your feet wet.
We drove out to Notre Dame de la Gorge, parked where the road ends and hiked up to the Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme and back, which is the first major climb of the race. In the race, we ended up running this section of the race at night, so it was also a great opportunity to see how beautiful this section is…and stop for Chocolat Chaud and Gateau Pruneaux at the Refuge ☺ no time for that on race day.
We took the Brevent Cable Car up to hike the Grand Balcon Sud… http://www.chamonix-mont-blanc-hiking.com/01balconsud.html
which is an easy but beautiful 6 mile hike to Flégère, and then we ran from Flégère to the finish in Chamonix to see the last 6 miles of the race. Be sure to stop at la Floria on the way down! You’ll not be stopping on race day and it could be in the dark!
View down into Chamonix
Using the TOPO maps that we downloaded from the UTMB website, and Google maps on the iPhone, we were able to follow the trail. The route is often marked by TMB red and white painted symbols too.
We really enjoyed eating at these places…
The bakery Saint Hubert, fresh croissants every morning and hot baguettes every evening
La Tablée restaurant, for great atmosphere and classic Savoyarde dishes (melted cheese!) http://latablee.fr/index.php
For either a fancier meal, the Caphorn Restaurant…or a super fun place for a pre or post dinner drink, the Cave (worth a visit for the décor alone)
For supermarkets, there’s the SuperU and Petit Casino in the town center,,,dotted amongst an overwhelming collection of outdoor stores, don’t forget to carry your Runner’s pass with you for store discounts, which will be available from your runners page before the race.
And of course, you have to visit l’Aiguille du Midi. For an all-day outing, we took the cable car up to the top (take extra clothes, it was much colder at almost 10000ft!), then took the cable part way down to Plan de l’Aiguille du Midi so we could hike the Grand Balcon Nord (described here in the opposite direction)
Its about a 6 mile hike to the Mer de Glace, along a beautiful trail overlooking Chamonix. We got up close and personal with the glacier by means of a tunnel they dig into it every year, complete with ice rooms. The Grand Hotel at Montenvers was a lovely stop for a post-hike beer, then we took the little red Montenvers train back down the hill into Chamonix.
We bought Mont Blanc multi passes for the cable cars that allowed unlimited use for a defined number of days:
Step 6…pre-race stuff
I’m not sure when the best time to check in for the race is…there was a pretty big line when we went, but it kept moving and they were very efficient. Even the high school girls handing out T-shirts spoke perfect English! Remember to take your pack with ALL your required gear in it, and your passport for photo ID, and the deposit for your chip…you don’t want to forget anything and have to line up again. They’ll check your bag, and chip it too.
You’ll receive a large yellow plastic bag, or Spares Bag…which is your one and only drop bag that will be transported to Courmeyeur. You’ll drop that off at the gymnasium on race day, and that was impressive!
Drop Bag organization
You can buy bus passes for accompanying persons here too, although it turned out that it would’ve been better to pre-order them in advance if you wanted to get on a shuttle bus to Les Contamines. There was a flat fee for a pass to use the buses, and it definitely took some of the stress out of getting to the different aid stations for Rob and Kristin, although it involved a fair amount of waiting around…but then they are seasoned CREW-ers, and used to the Crabby Runner, Endless Waiting.
Step 7…Race Day!
It’s a little odd starting a race at 4.30pm, we tried to lie down and rest a little bit during the day. We went out to eat lunch and picked an “omlette with vegetables” thinking that this would be gentle on the stomach, but it arrived in a bath of melted cheese! Fortunately we’d trained well for this, and our stomachs were fine.
We walked down to the start around 4pm, and the excitement was building. When they started playing the UTMB theme music, I felt a few tears welling, we had actually made it to the start line of UTMB! The music is Vangelis, Conquest of Paradise, and for me it has a Chariots of Fire-like ability to break me out in goosebumps. The start was not organized at all, but we gradually filtered across the starting line and starting running pretty soon. The trail is wide most of the way to Les Houches. We kept our poles in our bags for this first 6 mile section, you won’t need them and you won’t risk poking anyone with them in the crowd.
The previous three years had been affected in various ways by winter storms, and the race organizers clearly had a much better plan B ready for the 2013 edition, but we were incredibly lucky to get absolutely perfect weather for the race.
Be prepared for unbelievable crowd support. It’s like the Tour de France! The whole area seems to come out for the race, lining the streets through the towns, and hiking miles up hills to cheer the runners going by. They saw our British and American flags pictured on our bibs, and yelled out a few English words. With only 9% of the field being female, I got extra cheers of “Allez la fille!”…”Go, girl!”. And that’s how you tell you’ve crossed the border from France into Italy…there’s no line on the ground, but the cheers change from Allez, Allez! to Venga, Venga! You’ll hear cow bells too…mostly actually on cows.
After les Houches, you hit the first climb…we took out poles out here and they were out for the rest of the race.
We will never forget running into Courmayeur as the sun came up and seeing the Italian alps appear first as a pink glow. It was definitely the hardest thing I’ve done! It took us 36:16:17, and I went through both my highest high and my lowest low of a race ever.
We did get checked for pieces of required equipment at one of the aid stations, this caused a bit of a bottleneck, but being forced to rest for a few extra minutes wasn’t the worst.
The Europeans are wicked good descenders…if you’re like me and tentative on technical descents, can be a bit unnerving when you step aside to let runners pass and 20 people come flying by you. The descent into Courmayeur was the worst for me.
The aid stations are huge and well organized. Aid station food…was great, but definitely different from what you see at US ultras. There were big baskets of local French bread, cheese and sausage…good salty broth that they spooned plain noodles into. Some aid stations had plain pasta. There were yogurts, fruit, and some fruit bars (Overstim brand, http://www.overstims.com/Energy-bars). Water, coke, tea and coffee were available.
There were no salt tablets, and no gels or chews…so plan on taking your own of these if you need them.
We practiced taking cheese sandwiches with us on runs beforehand ☺
I translated the aid stations into miles and feet elevation gain, I just couldn’t get my head around kms and meters! It looks like there are a lot of aid stations when you first start looking at the race information, but what they offer varies…some just have drinks, others food and drink, some hot food etc, and some are just checkpoints where your bib number is scanned. This was my modified version…aid stations in red are where your accompanying person can help you.
|Aid||Total Distance||To next point||Altitude||UP||DOWN||Plus lent||Cut offs|
|Les Houches||D||4.9||3.7||3320||2552||72||30- 17:36|
|Le Délevret||8.6||4.5||5827||180||3284||30- 19:17|
|Les Contamines||F+D||19.1||2.4||3839||223||0||30- 22:20||22:30|
|Notre Dame de la Gorge||21.5||2.6||3986||1581||0||30- 23:02|
|La Balme||F+D||24.1||2.1||5597||2041||0||31- 00:24||0:30|
|Col du Bonhomme||26.2||1.2||7641||541||167||31- 01:58|
|Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme||27.5||3.2||8015||0||2904||31- 02:33|
|Les Chapieux||HF+D||30.7||6.4||5082||3143||33||31- 03:26||4:00|
|Col de la Seigne||37.1||2.7||8255||0||1745||31- 06:39|
|Lac Combal||F+D||39.8||2.7||6463||1499||33||31- 07:23||7:45|
|Arête du Mont-Favre||42.5||3.0||7989||36||1670||31- 08:53|
|Col Checrouit – Maison Vieille||D||45.5||2.4||6417||0||2375||31- 09:47|
|Refuge Bertone||D||51.0||4.5||6526||919||801||31- 12:52|
|Refuge Bonatti||D||55.5||3.2||6594||344||1096||31- 14:51|
|Grand Col Ferret||61.5||2.2||8323||0||1453||31- 18:21|
|La Peule||63.8||3.6||6795||486||2067||31- 19:00|
|La Fouly||F+D||67.4||5.2||5243||361||1801||31- 20:25||20:45|
|Praz de Fort||72.6||3.5||3776||1460||463||31- 22:20|
|Col des Montets||95.0||2.5||4793||2169||0||01- 10:08|
|La Tête aux Vents||97.5||1.9||6988||33||899||01- 12:13|
|La Flégère||D||99.4||4.8||6102||328||3045||01- 12:54||13:00|
People can stand wherever they want to cheer you on along the course…but you are only allowed help from crew at the aid stations listed in red. You get an “accompanying persons” pass for each of these aid stations…which means one person per runner is allowed into the special area to help you. The special area was often separate from where the food/drink was available at the aid station, so it mean’t it took a little more time getting through the aid stations. Some aid stations were more strict about accompanying persons than others.
The course markings are phenomenal! Don’t worry about getting lost or going off course at all.
the course is marked with thousands of these things…
Glossary of unusual french words:
Spares bag = drop bag, you only get 1!! 30Ltr plastic bag given out at registration. Dropped off on race day…unbelievable organization.
Caution = deposit Enrolement = registration
Obligatory equipment = required gear Recuperate = collect
Refreshment posts = aid stations Se deconnectuer = log off
Make sure you wave at the webcam after you cross the finish line! Your sister in New Zealand and your coworkers in San Francisco might be watching! Live tracking was good, our friends and family got kicks out of following our dots around the mountain, although our media specialist (aka my husband Rob) was very useful on facebook.