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UTMB 2017 – Race report

Original UTMB profile. From UTMB webpage.

UTMB is the race that made me start on trail running. I remember that I saw the video from UTMB and the list of mandatory equipment back in 2011-2012, and thought that it should be a crazy adventure to run around the Mont Blanc massive. At that time, I had already been to Chamonix (I have been there for the first time in 2004) and I knew how spectacular the scenery was.

In the last couple of years, I have participated in both PTL and TDS and got even more excited about the idea of running the UTMB. It took me 2 years to get in, since I didn’t get lucky in the first lottery.

I have recently became a dad and that certainly takes some of my training time and lust (and the sleeping is also not as good as it used to be :-)). But in spite of that, I think that the preparations have been good. I didn’t run as much as I normally would, but anyways I think that my shape was fine. I have spent a good time choosing which gear to use, and since I had most of it already from previous races, I tried to avoid acquiring new gear.

I was in paternity leave in the 3 weeks preceding the race and I could basically not think of anything else. I have packed and unpacked my gear many times, planned nutrition and partial times, tried new energy products and some of the new gear that I needed. We also had the chance to do some downhill training in the Indoorski DK in Rødovre, which I has proven to be pretty beneficial. Maibritt have had a lot of patience with me, and allowed me to use the time that I needed to prepare. Many time she would ask me a question (unrelated to the race) and I would answer with another question like “Do you think I should pack this jacket or that one?”. It is good to have a partner in life that share the same passion as I do :-).

We were a group of people from Denmark in Chamonix participating in the various UTMB races. Before the the races, we have had dinners together and hanged out a bit. I traveled to Chamonix with my family, and 3 friends Mads, Simon and Ulrich.

Mads, I, Simon and Ulrich just after getting our start numbers

I was so lucky that my friend HC Kongsted, who was participating in the OCC and had a great race, agreed to crew me under the race. So we had a quick meeting on Friday before the race, where we discussed where to meet and what I would need.

Race day

Mads, Simon, Bo and myself were together at the start line. The start of the UTMB is crazy, it gives goosebumps. Such an atmosphere! Mads, Simon and I had agree to try to hang together for as long as possible.

The weather was pretty unstable, but for our luck it was not raining in the start of the race. They promised cold and rain during the race, and therefore the course was slightly modified: Col des Pyramides was removed, so we would ran directly to Lac Combal; and Tete-aux-Vent was also removed, in favor of a new course which went from Vallorcine to Argentiere and then directly up to Flegere (same as the last part of OCC, I guess). The new course was slightly shorter and had 167,5kms and still 10K+ of vertical gain.

As soon as the race starts, it is a mass of runners moving through the city and unless you are really in the front, you basically have to walk/run the first kilometer. After that, there is good space to overtake but it still takes some time to find the right place in the field. The start is quite flat and easy, so it is possible to keep a good and relaxed pace until Les Houches. Mads and I were hanging together, but we had lost Simon. In Les Houches we were well placed, and running in a group with the same speed as we wanted to keep. Simon Grimstrup was there to cheer us up :-).

The first mountain is quite easy and runnable, but the visibility was really bad. It started to get dark and there was a lot of fog. When we turned our lamps on, we could only see 2-3 meters ahead, but the trails were fine, so there was no problem.

Running to Saint Gervais was quite an experience. Lots of people out on the streets cheering like crazy. So cool!

Mads and I on our way to Saint Gervais

As I arrived in Les Contamines, HC was there waiting for me. I was feeling super good, so we chatted briefly, reloaded my energy and I moved on. This aid station was quite a mess. The helpers could only stay in a special area, where there was no food or water! Mads and I lost each other in the mess (he left before I did).

The weather started to turn after Notre Dame de la Gorge, it started raining and it got quite cold. I hurried out of La Balme, so I would not get too cold. I had a good pace up and down and I met Bo and Mads again when I arrived in Les Chapieux. We continued together from there.

We ran through Lac Combal in the night, it seems to be a pretty beautiful place from the pictures, but we could not see anything in the dark. In Col Checrouit the sun started raising and on our way down to Courmayer we turned our lamps off.

Bo, myself and Mads at Courmayeur

In Courmayeur, we ate and tried to sleep a bit. After 20 min, Bo left and Mads and I decided to stay a bit more. It was wasted time and it didn’t really do any good, but the nice thing is that we met Simon again. We continued together from there: Mads, Simon and I.

I don’t remember exactly when it started, but I guess it was on my way up to Ref. Bertone. My right knee started to hurt a bit and I could not run properly anymore. I could still run, but it was a bit uncomfortable. From Ref. Bertone to Ref. Bonatti we got a stretch with pretty good weather and we had beautiful views of the Aosta Valley. After that, the weather began to turn. We got some hail and had to put all our gear on.

On the way down to Arnouvaz, my knee was already bothering me quite a lot in the downhills and it was hard to run. At this aid station, the officials were checking all the runners and no one was allowed to go out without wearing full rain gear, since the temperatures on top of Gran Col. Ferret were -9 and it was snowing. It was indeed a hard way up, we had to push hard not to get cold and in this uphill my knee got worse. From this point on, I could shuffle in periods but I couldn’t really run properly anymore and we had a long way down. From La Fouly to Champex-Lac it was basically 10km pure asphalt, not so exciting, but at least I could “run” a bit at times.


In La Fouly I was beginning to loose hopes that I’d be able to finish the race. I decided that I would give it a try up to Champex and see how my knee would feel. It was already painful and uncomfortable, but as I arrived to Champex Lac, my knee was not swallowed. HC was again there waiting for me and was a very big help, cheering me up and picking everything that I needed. I decided that I would continue. It is no doubt that at this point we were all feeling a bit sorry for ourselves and using way too much time in the aid stations…

From Champec-Lac we went through Orsières before the next uphill started. I was trying to spare my knee as much as possible but it was still ok on the uphills. Not as fast as it would normally go, but not super slow. In the middle of this uphill, Mads decided to run his race and set the pace up. The downhill to Trient was the hardest part of the race to me. I moved painfully slow. Simon was still trying to hold on with me, but I told him to move on. I was not even sure that I would continue after Trient. After Simon left me, I had my first and only crisis of the race. I was trying to make my mind that it was OK to stop. I could not bare the pain anymore and there was still 2 mountains, and a long way home at this pace. Furthermore, I didn’t want to end up with a serious injury. The way down to Trient took forever. I was literally humping down the mountain and regretting that I’d ever went up there.

HC and I had initially agreed that he would not go to Trient and Vallorcine, but he saw that I was struggling with my knee and decided to go anyway. Having him in the 2 last aid stations was such a big mental boost!

On my way to Trient I was ready to drop out. I was down really down. I could not accept that I would have to drop out from this race. When arriving to the aid station, a volunteer saw that I was humping and asked me how I was doing. I replied that my knee was super painful and that I would have to drop out. He encouraged me to go to the medical tent and see the doctors before deciding and I though “why not!?”. So that is the first thing I did in Trient.

I was expecting to hear something like “I would not recommend you to continue”, but to my surprise, after checking my knee the doctor said “it is an inflammation in a small ligament. We can tape you and you can continue”. So after 40 mins I was out of the medical tent and convicted that I would give the next mountain a try. Going out of the medical tent, I’ve met HC, who was waiting for me and made sure I had enough to eat. He was clearly worried with my knee, and seemed unsure to whether I should continue or not, but never encouraged me to stop.

As my knee got warmer, I could push a bit harder up to Catogne. The uphill went very well, compared to previously, and I got some of my motivation back. The way down was very muddy, which was good for me, since I could slide with right foot (the leg with the painful knee) and this way I could “run” down.

I didn’t want my knee to cool down, so when I arrived in Vallorcine I basically just said ‘hello’ to HC, gave him all the extra energy I was carrying but would not use, and moved on. It was a quick pit stop – no longer than 2-3 minutes. I was on my way to the last part of the race, next stop was Chamonix. This last stretch of the race had been slightly changed because of the bad weather: we would not run up to Tete-aux-Vent; we wound instead run to Argentiere and then directly up to Flegere. I had seen Tete-aux-Vents previously, and I knew that it was hard. So I thought that the route change would have made things easier, but that wasn’t the case. The stretch from Vallorcine to Argentiere was super hard with my knee in that condition. There were so many roots and rocks that we had to go over, that I was moving really slow, 1 or 2 km/h. I could basically not bend my right knee and I had to use my left leg to move down. It was painful and demotivating. But I eventually reached the uphill to Flegere and there I moved at better pace again.

Flegere was the last aid station. I just got a glass of Coke and started to move down. I could definitely not run, so I had to walk all the way to goal. It was not funny to be overtaken by so many in the end, but there was nothing that I could do about it. The sun started to raise and, as I approached Chamonix, I called Maibritt to let her know that I was arriving. After so many hours without sleep, I was having some funny hallucinations at the end: I saw glass boxes on the trail and they looked so real that I tried to kick them; I saw a woman with a baby running and hiding in the bushes (I thought it was Maibritt). Maibritt was waiting for me at the end of the trail with Dana in the trolley, they walked the last kilometer through the streets of Chamonix with me. HC also joined us as we got closer. It didn’t look pretty, but I crossed the finish line and I am really proud of it.

My time was slightly over 37h, which was much longer than I was expecting, but I still think that it is a fairly decent given the circumstances.

Finally in goal!

The route

The UTMB route has quite a lot of climbing, it is no surprise. However, the route is mostly not technical. The route is quite runnable for the most of the time (down and flat).

The start of the race is quite easy to overtake, but there is quite a lot of single track after that and it is not always easy to overtake, people have to give space, specially in the uphills.

The places that worth mentioning, in my opinion are:

  • The way down to Courmayeur: The downhill is pretty steep and technical at times. So it is not specially fast.
  • Gran Col Ferret: a long and tough uphill. We had very bad and cold weather there, so it was extra hard. The downhill from there is easy but very very long. It is a good place to win some time if you have the legs for it. From La Fouly to the bottom it is basically 10k of very runnable asphalt (side of the road).
  • Downhill to Trient: Also pretty steep and sometimes a bit technical with tired legs. It was super hard with my knee.
  • Vallorcine to Argentiere: Part of the changed route, but a quite technical part (probably the most technical of the whole race, I think). It is around 2-3km through closed forest with lots of big roots and rocks where you have to really watch your step.
  • Tete-aux-Vents: I mention it just for the records, because it was not part of the route this year. But I have seen it before and it is a hard climb. Very windy at the top (mind the name) and the downhill to Flegere is also not the easiest one (specially with that many kms in the legs).

Equipment

This is some of the main equipment I have used in the race:

  • La Sportiva Mutant: My all times favorite trail shoes. Great fit and grip.
  • Salomon S-lab 8L vest: The latest Salomon vest. The best vest I have ever owned. Salomon keep improving their vests, and I honestly think that there isn’t any vest in the marked that gets close to this one. It could fit all the mandatory equipment and it has a lot of good pockets which are easy to reach.
  • Salomon Pulse Belt: I used it to have my poles and to pack some of my energy. The elastics to hold the poles work quite well and the pocket in the belt is quite handy to carry some extra energy. It is also possible to have an extra soft bottle (which it hard to pack in the Salomon vest that I was using).
  • Black Diamond Ultra Distance carbon z-poles: best carbon poles which can be folded, in my opinion.
  • Gemini Duo head torch: the 4-cell battery almost got me through 2 full nights. I just used the 2-cell in the very end of the race. The light is super strong as well and has a very good fit.
  • Salomon S-lab short 8 + Bjorn Borg underwear: Very satisfied with this combination.
  • Compress Sport 3D thermo shirt: My new favorite t-shirt. Super light and comfortable. Dries fast and works very well as both first and base layer.
  • Inov-8 Stormshell: It worked quite well, but I’m not sure that I will use an anorak rain jacket again in a race. I think that full zipper is easier to use, since it is much faster to just put it over (you don’t even have to take out the running vest if you get a slightly bigger size).
  • Inov-8 merino wool sleeves: Amazing piece of equipment, in my opinion. Merino sleeves are super versatile, since they can really make a difference when it gets cold.
  • Salomon Bonatti rain pants: Works ok. Not impressive, but I didn’t want to buy new rain pants…
  • Dexshell merino wool waterproof gloves: I think that it is super hard to find gloves that are really waterproof when it rains a lot (specially if you use poles). In this race we didn’t get very strong rain, so they worked well. But they do have the problem (as any Dexshell that I have tried) that once they get wet they take forever to dry. But in any case, these gloves have Merino wool and should be able to keep warm even if wet.
  • Feetures! + Injinji socks: works perfectly for me. No blisters.
  • Rest of mandatory equipment

Nutrition

UTMB is probably the ultra race which I’ve got my nutrition most right. I had planned everything in advance, and it hold until around half the race. After, as I had problems with my knee, the pace slowed considerably and I didn’t eat quite as much as expected, but still enough not to have any crisis. I think that this is due to the fact that I have used mostly energy drinks instead of solid food. For me it is much easier to manage and to keep eating this way.

These are the main kind of energy that I used during the race:

  • Tailwind: I have tried Tailwind for the first time in this race. I used it as my main source of energy and I was very impressed with how well it worked under a long period of time. I must have used 20+ sticks during the whole race, both with and without caffeine. I think that the taste was fine and the caffeine dose was good for me. I drank a 500ml bottle per hour. I blanded one stick in a 500ml bottle and I think that the taste got a bit too strong after 10+ sticks. So maybe I’ll bland it less strong next time (although I think that the concentration was super good), and I’ll definitely have some more flavors instead of just 2. The sticks were a bit hard to open sometimes, but I’ve heard that they are solving this problem very soon. Overall I’m pretty happy with it and I’ll certainly use it in my next races.
  • Unived espresso gels: Super happy with these ones as well. They taste great and have a good dose of caffeine. Too bad that they are not easy to get from Denmark. I bought it from their website and had to pay toll, so they got quite expensive in the end…
  • 32Gi shots + coffee gels: used the shots to get smaller doses of caffeine and the gels because I like them.
  • The aid stations were quite good and offered a good variety of food, so I used that a lot as well.

Conclusions

A big thanks for my girlfriend Maibritt for letting me prepare for this race and to always support me on all my projects.

Also a big thanks for HC for the invaluable support during the race. It is not an easy task to be a supporter in these long races! And HC had just finished his race the day before! Thanks for being there for me in the last 3 aid stations as well, I know it was late and hard, but it helped me a lot!

Thanks a lot to Ole Clausen for the great support on the route and for meeting us in the most unexpected places, as on top of Gran Col Ferret under strong winds, snow and -9 degrees! You are a bit crazy, man hehehe (in a good way). And thanks for the pics!

I did get what I came after: a big adventure. The weather conditions this year were hard, and this made the race a true mountain experience. Furthermore, this is probably the strongest line up ever seen in this race and the 15th year anniversary.

I was not specially concerned in getting any particular finish time, but I did expect to finish around the 33 hours. Given the circumstances, I am pretty proud of having finished the race, and my time of 37 hours, although not close to what I initially wanted, is still respectable (again considering the circumstances). I am super proud that I didn’t give up under the hard circumstances and fought to the end.

I also got a lot of great time in some nice trails with friends, and I really enjoyed the race. I didn’t had any real crisis, despite the fact that my knee was hurting a lot in the last quarter of the race. So thanks Mads, Simon and Bo for the great company in the trails.

Thanks to all the people that have shared this days in Chamonix with us. It has been great.

Was it smart to run with an injured knee? Well, it never is, but in this case I had an OK from the doctors, and I am sure that if I had stopped my knee would have hurt just as much, and then I would not have finished (which would have hurt even more). So I guess I took the right decision this time. I had to take a break from running for +-3 weeks and only know, 4 weeks after, I am able to run properly again. I think this is a small price to pay. My calendar is empty, so I have plenty of time to recover.

Am I coming back to UTMB? Well, the answer right after the race was a straight ‘no’, some weeks later it was a ‘maybe’, now it is ‘probably’, so I guess it is a ‘yes’…

By the way, I think that it is insane that someone can run this in 19h!

© 2017, fbastian. All rights reserved.

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