Dark despair and high times on the trail of destruction that is the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc

Words: Warren Pole

(Outdoor Fitness)

IT WAS 2009 when I first met with the brutal brilliance of the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. Having spent the preceding two years taking myself from unable to run to finishing the six-day, 150-mile Marathon des Sables my confidence in my own running abilities (far too high) conspired with knowledge gleaned from seasoned runners I’d met on the trail to lead me to Chamonix, Mont Blanc and the race reckoned by many as the toughest ultramarathon going. 103 non-stop miles were enough on their own, but for context you had to look at where those miles went. They were almost entirely off-road on narrow, rutted singletrack trail laced with rocks and ankle-twisting tree roots, and they were rarely, if ever, flat. Instead, runners were sent on a do or die mission that would see them climb (and descend again) a total of 9,600 vertical metres between start and finish, 800 metres more than climbing Everest…

Strict cutoff times, enforced unflinchingly at every checkpoint, meant rest en route was out and then there was the final course maximum of 46 hours. Mathematically this means an average speed of just over two miles an hour guarantees a finish, but mathematics has yet to come up with a weighting equation to factor in sleep deprivation, hunger, the deleterious effects of weather that can freeze by night and boil by day, not to mention the sheer ballbusting effort of running, shuffling and hauling your carcass up and down mountains for two days without sleep.


Another night, another mountain, another step nearer to that fabled finish

In truth the only mathematical reality in this race is the finish rate – less than 50 per cent. Every year over half of the field don’t make it, despite all having had to qualify for their places by finishing other similarly punishing events.

The cherry on top was the jaw-dropping magnificence of the Alps as a running playground, not to mention the added delight of crossing three international borders on foot as the race winds from the start in Chamonix, into Italy and then Switzerland before regaining French soil to deposit successful finishers back in Chamonix.


2300 runners swarm out of Chamonix as the 2012 UTMB kicks off

My initial 2009 attempt ended in the disaster it was always destined for as the course taught me an abject lesson in humility. Getting caught in the frenzy at the start I bolted from the line too fast, then held this pace against all reasonable judgment for the next few hours. I raced through checkpoints, ate terribly – by eight hours I was retching on the gels I was trying to force down – and finally fell apart six miles short of the halfway checkpoint in the Italian ski resort of Courmayeur.

With the picture postcard town tantalisingly visible through the trees down below, those final miles were soul destroying as I shambled, broken, legs shot and feet ripped to pieces, down the sheer trail to the checkpoint beyond and inglorious salvation in the form of dropping from the race. The fact I was an hour under the cutoff was irrelevant. I couldn’t have crawled out of the checkpoint, let alone run another 50 mountain miles.

But in the pain and misery of this total collapse, a flame had been lit. The reality of a challenge like this had been thrown into stark context and far from putting me off, finishing this behemoth became my biggest inspiration.

A return in 2010 was derailed as overtraining and inexperience left me injured with a month to go, while 2011 saw me back in Chamonix to run the CCC, the UTMB’s ‘little’ brother taking in the second half of the course only. Despite spending my blackest hours of that race – of which there were many – vowing to never repeat the experience, within moments of finishing I was ready to sign up for the main event on the spot.

Such selective (and almost instant) memory loss was worrying. I asked seasoned UTMB pro and multiple podium finisher Sebastien Chaigneau if he ever experienced the same.

“Your mind remembers the good sensations, and your throws away the bad, it’s crazy,” he laughed, confirming my ‘problem’ was far from unusual. Then he added, “being ready for a race like this takes four or five years,” before bounding off elsewhere looking like he’d merely been for a jog the previous day rather than having run 103 mountain miles in an insanely fast 20 hours and 55 minutes to claim second place overall.


Chaigneau pounds trail during as day breaks

His last comment was my final tipping point. I had been training for three years by this stage – why throw it all away when the goal was within sight at last?

For the next eleven months I trained and raced, lifting my comfortable range from 50 miles on the flat to overnight 80 mile-plus events through rough weather and rougher terrain, raising my game from back of the pack finisher to middle of the pack runner.

On one level, this was completely pointless – ‘why bother if you’re not winning?’ would be some folks’ reaction.

But then this is a reaction that misses the beauty of ultrarunning. While for the world’s best, these events really are races in every sense, for the rest the challenge is the distance, the journey into the unknown, the chance to go in search of your own limits, the chance to break them down and the chance, on occasion, to be broken by them.

As Chaigneau put it after the 2011 race, “if you don’t break the barriers, that’s the level you stop at. But if you keep going you can get over those barriers and gradually everything becomes a pleasure”.

Arriving in Chamonix this year I wouldn’t quite say everything was a pleasure, but I knew I was ready. The small town was alive with energy as 2,300 UTMB runners and another 3,400 runners in the three support races signed on, made final preparations and ate every restaurant within a five-mile radius out of anything that wasn’t bolted down.

The weather forecast though was shocking and getting worse and just hours before the start news hit that the course had been radically changed. High passes in and out of Italy had become lethal and with the weather closing in further sending anyone up there was impossible. This year’s UTMB would be on a fresh course of ‘just’ 68 miles with 6,00 metres vertical climb.

Disappointment was the first reaction to sweep Chamonix, but as despondent runners congregated the collective mood turned to optimism, then excitement once again. This was still the UTMB after all, and as seven pm rolled around the town centre was packed with 2,300 starters as the race anthem – ‘Conquest of Paradise’ by Vangelis – blared before we were set off into the night and a different sort of unknown on a brand new course.

Keen not to repeat my 2009 debacle, I hung so far back in those early stages I was nearly run over by the car sweeping the back of the pack leaving Chamonix.

Then, two hours in as darkness settled, heavy rain joined the party. Like the worst of unwanted guests it didn’t leave for the next 14 hours, unless you count the moments when we ran high enough for it to have become snow.

Through the bitter night where temperatures hovered around zero at best, the miles ticked stubbornly by as we battled a trail that as well as being rough, was now often also pure festival swamp. This may be fun after five pints of cider when The Gaslight Anthem have got it turned up to eleven, but is slightly less entertaining on a sheer mountainside at five in the morning when the chattering of your teeth is the only thing keeping you awake while your mind starts gently drifting from its moorings as the worlds of sleeping and waking blur together in the wobbling beam of your headtorch.

But as dawn turned to day, the numbness that had fogged my mind all night was replaced with the realisation there was work to do. For three years this race had dominated my life, and now I had to put it to bed. Shuffling became jogging, and jogging became running as previously dead legs found life again – from where I still have no idea – and for the next six hours I ran like my life depended on it, finally crossing the line in Chamonix in just under 21 hours and 1088th place, higher than I could ever have hoped.


Crossing the finish line myself in 2012. I'll be back again in 2013...

Looking back now, the black hours of which there were so many have long since been erased, and all that remains is that sheer bloody adventure. Will I be back again? Already the answer’s shifted from ‘definitely not’ to ‘maybe’. I think I’ve got a problem.*

*Update, Jan 2013, my entry for this year's race has just been confirmed. I've most definitely got a problem


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