Despite a hectic Ultra-Trail World Tour calendar,Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) remains a standout race for many elites, given the race’s rich tradition, stunning mountain scenery, consistently world-class field, and the sheer difficulty of the 170km course. It has always taken something magical to win — and 2016 was no different.
This year, 2,555 runners toed the start line, with a mouth-watering line up that included previous podium finishers Luis Alberto Hernando, David Laney, and Tòfol Castanyer, plus last year’s Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix’s first and second Americans Zach Miller and Tim Tollefson, and Lithuanian powerhouse Gediminas Grinius.
In the women’s field, course record-holder Rory Bosio would be joined by 2015 second- and third-place getters, Uxue Fraile and Denise Zimmermann, as well as Switzerland’s Andrea Huser (who recently crushed Lavaredo), 2015 Western States champ Magdalena Boulet, and local favourite Caroline Chaverot (who fell agonisingly short last year, succumbing to stomach issues and leg cramps at Vallorcine, 151km mark, after leading all race).
The UTMB course circumnavigates Europe’s highest peak in a painfully difficult slog loop, starting and finishing at Chamonix, and including a number of 2,400m+ peaks, with relentless thigh-burning climbs mixed in with long technical descents. Like last year, an extra technical climb up and down Col des Pyramides would see total elevation gain at above 10,000m D+.
An additional complication for 2016 would be the weather, with daytime temperatures soaring into the high 20s, well above average with humidity, and thunderstorms forecasted for late Saturday for the mid-packers. These impediments reflected in the higher-than-average DNF rate of 42%.
Considering the higher temperatures, it was not surprising to see the race start out at a less-frenetic pace than previous year’s. Despite being his first attempt at the ‘miler’ distance, Zach Miller led out in his typical rabbiting style, joined by four Frenchmen: Julien Chorier, Fabien Antolinos, Sébastien Camus, and Ludovic Pommeret.
Miller continued to push, building a 26min lead by Grand Col Ferret (the 102km mark) — but UTMB is all about closing well (as David Laney proved last year with a barnstorming finish for third). By Champex-Lac, just 24km later, Miller had lost his lead and would fade to a still-respectable 6th place. Chorier, too, though second for most of the race, would likewise slip back and finish in 8th.
Up ahead, the race was wide open. Grinius was running his typically well-paced ‘lawnmower’ strategy, Tollefson and Laney were also pushing through the field, and Pommeret had returned from the dead after dropping back to 50th with headaches and stomach issues on the descent into Les Chapieux. Of the four new frontrunners, no one was in the top seven at the main checkpoint at Courmayeur.
From here, however, it was a one-man show, with Pommeret taking the lead on the climb up to Catogne and never looking back. While not a blowout win like the previous two years, his finish time of 22h was still a 26min gap to 2nd place Grinius (who himself was 4min ahead of Tollefson).
In contrast, the women’s race was a two-horse affair, with Chaverot dominant from the start and only Huser able to keep pace. Like last year, Chaverot began to struggle in the later stages with leg cramps, whittling her 20min advantage down to just 4min by Praz de Fort (118km). However, she dug deep to hold on for the win in 25h 15min, just 7min ahead of a fast-finishing Huser (making this year’s competition the closest women’s race in UTMB history). Third was Spain’s Fraile in 27h 10min.
Notable UTMB mentions for the Asian men included Masatoshi Obara (16th, 24h 39min ), Masazumi Fujioka (40th, 27h 39min), and Takashi Doi (43rd, 28h 2min), all from Japan, plus Hong Kong’s Wong Ho Chung (42nd, 27h 47min). For the women, excellent performances included that of Japan’s Kaori Niwa (8th, 29h 17min) plus Sophie Grant (10th, 31h 53min) and Marie McNaughton (15th, 33h 56min) from New Zealand, and China’s Yanxing Ma (17th, 34h 5min).
By John Ellis, GoneRunning.hk