Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc

Eric J Lee, 8/30/2013

While I have written up a brief summary of my experience at UTMB, I am writing this more detailed report about the race for those who are interested in one day running the race, or for those who are interested in getting a runner's perspective on what makes UTMB such a unique event.

Getting to the Start Line

As I tried to nap on Friday afternoon (race day) I could hear the crowds bustling outside and the announcers getting everyone hyped up for the much awaited start, sleep did not come. At 2pm I finally gave in, roused myself, showered and put on my race gear, it was go time. I'd spent all summer perfecting my UTMB race kit, because with a required gear list of 16+ items, lighter was definitely going to be beneficial. See the end of this report for a detailed itemized gear list with weights for those interested. My friend Chris and his family stopped by for a little bit, we were both way too amped up to relax, but did our best none the less. A little after 3pm we all wandered down to the start line to take our places amongst the 2500 other runners. After sharing a few hugs with our families/crews, Chris and I pushed our way into what we thought was the middle of the crowd, it was really more like the back 1/3. As the crowd consolidated Chris and I were separated, we wished each other well from a distance, and I popped in my headphones in an attempt to drown out the roaring crowd and pop music blaring from the loud speakers. Alas my poor Sunlounger was no match for the announcer, who had everyone dancing and waving their hands in the air. I usually prefer a much quieter start, one where I can calm myself and become immersed in my thoughts, today I would not get that.
Mt Blanc towering over Chamonix, as seen from Aguille du Midi, 8/29/13. Mandatory gear check at check-in for UTMB, 8/29/13. Prerace Dinner with the Colorado crowd and families, 8/29/13.

Part 1: The Hype, Start to Saint Gervais

Finally the count down, and boom off we went....sort of. I walked across the start line, 45sec after the race started, but it would be almost 4min until I actually started to run. As I strolled down the streets of Chamonix I scanned the crowd for my family and friends, but no luck. The streets of Chamonix were packed with people of all ages; clapping, yelling, cheering, high fiving, it was a scene unmatched by any US ultra I have ever attended. As we cruised out of town I finally found some running room, but was quickly realizing how far back in the pack I was and felt the urge to play catch up. I pushed my way past many other runners who where slow jogging and even walking the easy rolling terrain toward Les Houches. I probably passed at least 200 runners on the gravel roads leading to Les Houches, not without expending a great amount of energy. I felt rushed at this point, part of it was the hype of the race, partially because I realized how far back in the pack I'd started. I blew through Les Houches, just a quick water refill, and as we wound our way out of town I began to relax a little more, waving to spectators, high fiving every kid I found along the way.
My parents and I at the start of the UTMB, 8/30/13. Representing the US at UTMB, 8/30/13.

Chris (yellow) tucked in amongst the crowd at the UTMB start, 8/30/13. Crowd getting amped up by the announcers, 8/30/13. Supporters lining the streets of Chamonix, 8/30/13.

The first climb out of Les Houches to Le Delevret started very mellow and I found myself running the shallow up hills and pushing hard on the steeps, too hard in retrospect. I was blowing by people, but was so amped up I was a bit out of control. I paused a few times to glance back for a photo of the Chamonix valley far below. I topped out on the Le Delevret climb 1:45 into the race, oiy that was way too fast! My friend Nick had warned me of the precipitous nature of the first descent, but still it was steeper than I'd anticipated, and much of it on steep grass with no switchbacks or stairs in sight. As I usually do, I went bombing downhill, a bit too hard, crushing the descent into Saint Gervais, arriving at 2:28 (6:58pm), WAY ahead of schedule for the first 22km. I waved to my parents and Chris's family as I blasted through town and into the aid station. I grabbed some water, a few snacks and slowly trotted out of town, which was also lined with screaming fans and supporters.
Looking back down on Chamonix from Le Delevret, 8/30/13. Runners atop Le Delevret, 8/30/13. Me cruising through St Gervais, 8/30/13.

Part 2: Taking Control, Saint Gervais to Col du Bonhomme

As I slowly made my way toward Les Contamine I took a moment to take stock, I was a bit dehydrated from the warm afternoon and fast start, in need of electrolytes and a pace readjustment. I told myself to stop racing, and just run MY race, I finally stopped worrying about comparing myself to the Europeans and started taking care of what I needed to do to run smarter. The first order of business was to get my hydration and electrolytes in balance before it got dark, so I slowed the pace and watched as dozens of people passed me as we ran through the rolling meadows, no biggy. As I ran into Les Contamine at 4:03 (8:33pm) I felt much more comfortable, but not at ease yet. I met my parents for our first crew stop and told them I started too hard so needed to back it down, but was otherwise OK. I restocked my Vfuels, drank an entire bowl of soup and had a glass of coke before saying bye to my parents and heading out on the long dark road to Courmayeur.
Sunset on the Alps just outside Les Contamine, 8/30/13. Lights, music and tons of spectators greeted us at the Notre Dame Aid Station, 8/30/13. Full darkness at La Balme, 8/30/13.

I continued my easy pace as darkness enveloped us, ahead lay our first big climb to the Col du Bonhomme. I ran sans-light for as long as I could, finally giving in and flipping on my headlamp just before Notre Dame. The terrain up through Notre Dame and on to La Balme was a blur, fairly smooth moderate angle climbing, it was here that I first noticed the impressive fast hiking pace of some of the Europeans. I am a pretty good fast hiker, but on the smooth moderate angle terrain, they had another gear, I wasn't used to such smooth footing. I settled in to my comfortable pace, and by the time we reached La Blame I was finally feeling 'right'. I blew through the aid station and on up into the night toward the Col du Bonhomme. It was a perfectly clear night, calm wind, cool but comfortable temperatures, and millions of stars shining overhead in the moonless sky. As we climbed higher and higher I couldn't help but to pause several times and look back down at the seemingly endless stream of headlamps snaking their way up the valley below, what a sight. Near the top of the climb I noticed I was reeling in many of the Europeans, not because I was getting faster, but because they were slowing above 2000m, and I just kept chugging along. Advantage Colorado! I crested the Col du Bonhomme at 6:31 (11:01pm), only to find that the climbing wasn't done, and we had an ascending traverse to complete before topping out.

Part 3: Long Dark Road, Col du Bonhomme to Courmayeur

As we traversed away from the Col du Bonhomme I flipped on my flashlight and made quick work of the technical terrain, finally my advantage. Being a working stiff I spend many a night running the trails in Boulder, thus feel at home in the dark running by flashlight. I contend that a handheld (in conjunction with a headlamp) definitely gives one an advantage on technical terrain. Once again I made quick work of the steep descent into Les Chapieux arriving at 7:29 (11:59pm), keeping my effort and pace in check. The aid station was a welcome oasis of energy in the night, cowbells rung, music blared, supporters cheered. I fed off the energy, another quick aid stop and headed off for big climb #2 to the Col de La Seigne.

I quickly discovered that the first 6km of this climb followed the paved road, ugh, the worst part of the race by far. As I powered up the road I finally got to chat with another English speaker, Adam from Australia. It was really nice to have company on the road to pass the time. We finally came to the end of the pavement and off Adam went up the steep climb, me content with my slower steady pace, knowing I'd catch people at the higher elevations again. I comfortably cruised up the climb into the darkness, above the entire Milky Way stretched across the sky, surrounded by more stars than I could even phathom. I once again caught and passed people down the steep rocky descent toward Lac Combal. As I cruised down past a group of runners one of them shouted my name, it was Chris! He had some how snuck past me in the dark near Notre Dame, and had been running just in front of me ever since.

We met back up at Lac Combal at 10:02 (2:32am) and hiked out together, it was really nice to have such a good friend around in the endless sea of French and Italians. The climb up the Arête du Mont Favre was steep, but much shorter than our previous two ascents. As we neared the top Chris had a little rough patch in the early morning hours, so I forged ahead promising that I'd see him in Courmayeur on the other side. I made quick work of the climb and once again stood at the summit, this time staring down toward Courmayeur, almost 1300m below. The descent pitched over quickly, and it was apparent we were gonna lose most of this elevation in a hurry. I tried to really ease up on this steep descent as I could tell my quads were tightening up, and with more than half the race left, this could be a major problem. After a few steep ski hills, then a little reprieve on some more mellow slopes before the final drop to Courmayeur. 800m down in 3km on steep dusty switchbacks, my quads were knotting up, so I even walked a few sections to ease the pressure, it helped a little. Finally the trail ended in the roads on the outskirts of town. The route continued onto the cobble stone back streets, down narrow alleys, at last popping out in downtown Courmayeur. It was surprisingly quite, even for 4:47am (12:17), with only a few hearty crews standing guard. I entered the aid station, grabbed my drop bag, and continued into the crew area where my mother was waiting.

Part 4: Pain Management, Courmayeur to La Fouley

It was really good to see my parents after the long haul from Les Contamine up and over three big climbs. Chris arrived a few minutes later, and the four of us chatted (me, my mom, Katie, Chris). As my mom relayed info about the upcoming course and helped me restock my bag, I used my elbow to try and unknot my quads, it helped a little. Once I was stocked up I hugged my mom, little did I know this would be my last crew stop as a runner. Chris and I headed up stairs where the bulk of the aid station and food lay. A little more soup, some coke, a chunk of stale bread, then we were off. It took some navigating to get ourselves out of town, finally we left the pavement and started up the steep climb to Refugio Bertone. The first light of morning was just starting to illuminate the silhouettes of the massive peaks above. As we crested treeline and neared the refugio the sun lit up the jagged glacier clad peaks across the valley and allowed us to look back down to Courmayeur far below.
Chris and I at Courmayeur around 4am, 8/31/13. First light on the Mt Blanc Massif near Refugio Bertone, 8/31/13. Refugio Bonatti, the views do not suck, 8/31/13.

It had been almost 9hours since darkness had fallen, and the sun was a welcome sight for the moment. Refugio Bertone 13:52 (6:22am) was a fairly minimal aid; water, soup and a few snacks. As I drank my soup and continued to work on my quads, I began to get chilly for the first time all race, and finally donned my long sleeve shirt. Chris took off a few minutes ahead, so I played catch up for a bit, finally reeling him in on the rolling traverse. Despite the sun having risen, we remained in shadow, and this turned out to be the coldest stretch of my race. The trail over to Refugio Bonatti had a few small climbs, but was mostly rolling. My legs still felt OK uphill, and I was still running the flats, but the downhill was becoming more and more uncomfortable. Chris and I leap frogged all the way to Bonatti 15:08 (7:38am), where I hung out a few extra minutes to try and work out my quads before the descent into Arnuva. The downhill started gradually, but quickly turned steep, as most of our downhills did. The tightness in my quad, and subsequent knee pain were growing, forcing me to stop several times to stick an elbow in my quad, and to try and massage it out, temporary relief. I awkwardly trotted into Arnuva at 16:04 (8:35am), trying to find a way to minimize the knee pain.

I caught up with Chris in the Arnuva aid station and as we both sat their chatting and massaging our quads, this nice French young lady came over and asked if either of us wanted massages. We quickly glanced at one another, and answered with a emphatic, Oui! (Yes in French) While it felt good to get the muscle worked on, afterwards I could tell, that wasn't going to fix my issues. I bid Chris adeux for the last time and told him not to wait for me, as it was gonna be a rough one, and I would most likely be slower than molasses downhill, if I could run at all. After refueling a bit more I set out on the long climb to the Grand Col Ferret.
Views on the climb to the Grand Col Ferret, 8/31/13. From the Grand Col Ferret, looking at 1400m of downhill, ouch, 8/31/13. Mountains surround the La Fouley valley, could barely enjoy this due to the pain, 8/31/13.

I felt OK on the steep uphill, a bit tired, but that was to be expected with almost 100km and 5000m of climbing on my legs. I kept a decent pace to the top of the climb, but all I could think about was the 20km and 1400m of descending that lay on the other side. I reached the summit at 17:30 (10am), feeling good, but dreading what lay ahead. I paused for a moment to massage my quads and survey the trail, it started out gently, maybe it wouldn't be too steep, more praying than believing that. I stared off at a slow trot down the easy grade, not bad so far, but as soon as the trail pitched downward, even if it was only a short drop, my quad locked and my knee screamed in pain. After about 20min of alternating jogging and walking to minimize the damage I knew I was going to have to do something else, or this might be the end.

I remember that part of our mandatory gear list was a bandage, that stupid bandage, yes! I pulled over, massaged my quad again, and wrapped up my knee/quad. I started back downhill very gingerly at first, minimal pain, this might actually work. I began to slowly jog downhill, but then the grade pitched down again and the pain returned, reducing me to a very slow ginger walk/hop downhill. I was barely able to bring myself to enjoy the spectacular beauty of the valley, massive peaks rose on all sides, flanked by green pastures, and disrupted by the occasional waterfall exploding out of the precipitous hill side. The steepest part of the descent at the bottom took its toll. I was barely limping down the steep sections, often side stepping, but still able to shuffle the flats with just some pain. While the physical damage kept accumulating, it was the mental damage that ultimately did me in. I slowly walked my way into La Fouley at 19:10 (11:40am), not even putting on a 'show jog' for the crowd.

I looked for my parents, a friend, anyone I knew, no one to be found. I sat down, and put my face in my hands, a million different scenarios running through my head, but the most prominent one was, that my race may be over. I looked at the remaining race profile, 60km, with almost 3300m of descending, some on extremely steep terrain. Even at a slow limp, with all terrain now being painful, downhills excrutiating, and getting worse with every step, I didn't see how I was going to make it through in one piece and be able to walk afterwards. Completely dejected, I slowly walked over to the aid station captain and had his assistant cut my barcode, remove my timing chip and make it official, I was done, the UTMB had defeated me.

Part 5: The Aftermath

As I limped over to the bus that would take me to Champex Lac, the only thought on my mind was that I'd failed, I had trained hard, was running well, but neglected to keep myself balanced enough to prevent injury, an injury I knew could become an issue long before the pain started. At Champex Lac I limped through the crowd, finally finding my parents and Chris's family. At first they were all confused to see me limping, not along the race course, but soon realized the bad news, I was done. I sat down with them all, relayed the tail of the beauty of the course, and the pain of my demise. I went into the aid station to grab some food, as I hadn't eaten in hours, and Chris soon rolled in, a little hot and dehydrated, but still moving well. I wished him well, gave his crew my leftover salt caps and a few extra gels, then my dad and I caught the bus back to Chamonix. Most of the bus ride back was a blur, as I fell in and out of sleep. Finally back in Chamonix I was able to clean up, nurse my wounds (ibuprofen and ice) and lay down for a nap. After a short nap I limped my way down to the finish line to watch Brendan and Chris finish, both under 30h!
Contemplating my UTMB after dropping at 108km, 8/31/13. Chris finishing the UTMB under 30h, 8/31/13. Andrea, Chris and I at the UTMB finish, note the red finisher's vests, I'm jealous, 9/1/13.

While many people have said I am being overly hard on myself, I would argue the disappointment I feel is almost necessary. I relished my no DNF streak for a long time, knowing that someday it would most likely end, and on that day it would suck. And boy does it ever feel horrid, but I am glad it does. I don't like quitting things, I don't want to make a habit of it, and I definitely know I am capable of better, that is why I am so hard on myself. This is not to say I didn't thoroughly enjoy the race and what it offers, just that I didn't enjoy how it ended. The energy surrounding UTMB is unmatched by any US ultra I've been apart of, the support from the communities is incredible, the scenery amazing, the challenge of the course lives up to the hype and it's truly an international affair. Now I am left with all the 'what ifs'; what if I had taken those first downhills easier, what if I had given my quads more attention earlier, had I really exhausted all options before I dropped, could I have limped on slowly and finished under the cutoff? These are questions I will never know the answer to, and ones that may haunt me until I get another crack at the UTMB. For those who love the mountains and want to experience an ultra unlike any other I highly recommend UTMB. Special thanks to Vfuel Endurance and Hind Outerwear for supporting my habits and adventures.

Part 6: Closing Thoughts

A few notes about the race and the trail.
First, the trails of the UTMB, while being steep, are much smoother and more runnable than many of our Colorado mountain trails. The CO equivalent would be a black diamond ski hill; smooth, open terrain, no stairs, but incredibly steep and runnable. So rather than rock hopping one can just move, both up and down, so speed laps on a ski hill would be great muscle training.
Second, while high elevation training is good, its definitely not necessary, training between 4000ft and 9000ft would be ideal.
If you don't have a crew, practice with their food! Here is what you'll find at the aid stations; bread, salami, lots of cheese, bananas, oranges, noodle soup, chocolate, a funny tasting energy/cereal bar, crackers, soda and water. Get used to those things, because you won't find gels, clif bars (or similar), candy, trail mix, chips, potatoes (I couldn't find any), PB&J, turkey sandwiches and many other common US foods. Of course food can change, and you can always carry your own or use your crew/drop bag (singular).
Crews are very helpful, and other than the mad house of Les Contamine, most of the crew stops were very sane. With that being said, I spent most of my time in the top 300, so that is just one view of the race.
Unless you speak French or Italian be prepared for a lot of quiet time and not much chatter. English speakers are a definite minority, and with so many countries represented its often hard to tell where people are from, so don't expect a lot of conversation.
Lastly, always remember to enjoy it, that's why you're there. Take video and pictures, pause to admire the scenery, high five every kid you see, smile for the crowds and just enjoy the whole experience, for UTMB is more than just the race.
Chamonix and UTMB, I will return and next time I will be ready to redeem myself on your beautiful trails.

UTMB Required Item Personal Item to Fullfill Requirement Weight (g)
Mobile Phone for use in 3 Countries Personal Cell Phone 99
Personal Cup or Tumbler 15cl min Capri Sun Container 6
Min 1L Water 2x 20oz Water bottles 160
Two Torches+Batteries Tikka XP & Fenix LD10 + 2AAs 208
Survival Blanket 1.4m x 2m Min Orange SOL blanket, 96" x 60" 105
Whistle Built into UD SJ Vest 2
Adhesive Elastic Bandage 100cm x 6cm Min 3" Wide Ace Bandage 68
Food Reserves 2 Balance Bars 103
Jacket w/ Hood Made of Waterproof Breathable Membrane Golite Virga 217
Long Running Trousers or a Combination of Leggings and Long Socks Zensah Calf Sleeves & ¾ Tights 243
Warm Midlayer Top, Min 180g Hind Long Sleeve 223
Extra Midlayer for Warmth (Optional) Smartwool arm warmers 55
Cap or Bandana Vfuel Running Hat 53
Warm Hat Red Fleece Beanie 24
Warm and Waterproof Gloves Nitrile Gloves + OR Fleece Gloves 56
Waterproof Over-Trousers Luke's Ultralite Silnylon Pants 79
Identity Papers Passport & License 60

This is just the "Required Gear List" and the items I used to fulfill it, there were many other personal items I had in my drop bags, carried by my crew, or carried on my person that were also used for the race. In 2013 we experienced very mild weather with no precipitation, so I never used my 3/4 tights, my rain jacket or my rain trousers.