Europe’s Jewel: The Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc

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Columbia Hong Kong team enjoying the surrounding trails of Chamonix. Photo: Alexis Berg

| Full article available [FREE] in Asia Trail magazine HERE |

Ultra runners worldwide grin with glee, break into an instant sweat, immediately start daydreaming, and burn with race-day anticipation when the famed ultra-talk acronym UTMB crosses their minds and escapes their lips. Since the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc’s beginning, the event has drawn revered attention and received iconic status — an event whose mountain views will stop the most serious racer in his tracks, and whose camaraderie and spectatorship rivals that of Tour de France’s.

China’s Long-Fei Yan — who won the Hong Kong 100, both in 2015 and 2016 — says about the UTMB: “It’s just like the Olympic Games, and all the participants can test their running standard in this race.” Long-Fei adds: “It’s the greatest race I have ever run with the most participants and the most events. In most Chinese runners’ eyes, it’s a sacred race and they are very proud to run the it.”

Jeff ‘BroncoBilly’ Browning entered the race in 2015, and has not been the same since: “It’s awesome and the race atmosphere is truly electric. The mountain culture is so deep in the Alps that you can’t help loving the race. The spectator turnout is amazing and it gives you so much energy to run through the villages and high-five lines of kids. People are all over the course — even in the middle of the night.”

A Stacked Field of Racers

As always, the 2017 UTMB has attracted a massive field of athletes. The elite entry list is long and full of experienced and highly qualified racers. Topping the list are runners such as, Kílian Jornet, Jim Walmsley, François D’Haene, Xavier Thévenard, Sage Canaday, Gediminas Grinius, and Dylan Bowman.

The women’s race will be just as exciting, with top runners including Núria Picas, Magdalena Boulet, Andrea Huser, Juliette Blanchet, Kaori Niwa, and Pui Yan Chow.

I asked Sage Canaday, a top podium pick, how he feels about the competition this year: “Looking at the competition it appears to be the most competitive mountain-ultra-trail race in history with a lot of repeat champions, top-ranked runners, and a long list of favourites. My goal is always to try to win, but ultimately I want to run the best race that I can.”

How to Run and Train For It

The #1 training priority in any ultra-distance event is building a solid base. And the same rule holds true for the UTMB.

Long-Fei Yan says: “If a runner wants to run good in the race, he needs to prepare at least 3-4 months for the race. System training, core training, and recovery after the training are very important.”

An interesting suggestion from Bowman is to hire a coach with specific experience training runners for events like the UTMB. He feels this is one of the best ways to train and prepare for the race: “I think prioritising time and vertical over mileage in training is important to prepare for the relentlessly mountainous course. Having good lighting gear and a solid nutrition strategy are also important.”

Here’s a top suggestion from most runners, including Manikala Rai: “Come in advance. Two weeks is a minimum. It permits you to adapt to jet lag, change of climate, new food, etc.”

Browning agrees, emphasising the importance of getting in lots of climbing and descending before race day, a sure way of familiarising oneself with the Alps’ unique terrain. He adds a note on pace: “I think it’s important to not get too caught up in the hoopla and early fast pace that UTMB is known for. The field is so deep and coupled with the electric energy of the crowd, it makes it easy to run too hard early. You have to be ready for the latter tough miles that come with long ultras in the mountains.”

Holly Rush’s top UTMB training suggestion: “Just run lots! If possible I would try to see the route before the race, this really helped me decide on the right kit and shoes and what was coming next. If this isn’t possible, then do lots of climbing practice with poles (I used poles for the first time and they really helped) and spend plenty of time on your feet. I would also practice with different foods. Expect the lows. In a race this long you will go through bad patches. Just keep moving forward and soon you will come through it.”

As Rush observed, you don’t even need to be racing to enjoy the festival atmosphere. During race week, Chamonix turns into a running mecca, with thousands of people hanging out to run and to support the runners.

By Clint Cherepa. Full article available in Asia Trail magazine (August 2017). 

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