Posted by: pointlenana | August 12, 2014

UTMB Dreams

Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) is the world’s largest trail race, held in Chamonix each year at the end of August.  About 2300 runners are entered in the UTMB race, and with 4 associated races also held during the week, Chamonix turns into a big trail-running party for ~7000 participants who show up for the week.  Or so I’m told.  I’ll find out in a couple weeks, since I literally won the lottery to get into UTMB this year.

Like some other bucket list races (e.g. Western States 100, or even the Boston Marathon), to get into UTMB you first have to qualify and then you have to have some luck in the entry process.  In the case of UTMB, I qualified by accumulating 7 “points” in races over the past couple years – Cascade Crest Classic 100 got me 4 points last year, and the rest came from some combo of White River, Chuckanut, and Miwok runs.  Once I qualified, I was able to enter the lottery at the end of last year.  I assumed my chances were poor – they are pretty abysmal at Western States – but each year you aren’t selected, your odds go up for the following year.  I didn’t think I was ready to run it this year after only one 100 mile race, but I figured I’d get on the list for the future.  So much for making plans like that – it turns out my chances were about 1 in 3 and I got lucky this year.  I do feel lucky but this is an epic run so I hope I still feel lucky afterwards.

UTMB is a run around Mont Blanc.  166 kilometers (about 104 miles), 31000+ feet of uphill (and the same downhill, since it’s a loop course), and we travel through France, Italy, and Switzerland during the race.  Those numbers are somewhat frightening, but the numbers that scare me the most are 1) we have a limit of 46 hours to finish the race, 2) the race starts at 5:30pm, and 3) of the starters, 1/3 don’t finish and 1/3 take at least 40 hours to finish.  So, of the people who manage to finish, most of them run through one night, all day the next day, through a second night, and some of a 3rd day.  Last year, only 130 people finished before midnight on the second night.  Except for the very fast and the very slow, most of us will spend more time running at night than in sunlight.

In spite of, or maybe because of, the difficulty, UTMB is an exceptionally beautiful course.  High mountain passes, lakes, valleys, small mountain villages, non-stop views of Mont Blanc and nearby peaks.  There are several highlight videos on youtube, and I’ve spent far too much time watching them.  If I’m lucky, the weather will be decent and there will be good visibility during the actual race.  I expect UTMB to be tough – I remember thinking “this is brutal” over and over again at the end of Cascade Crest – but once I got in I made it a goal to go into the race well-trained so that I can still appreciate the setting.

I was accepted in the lottery in January, and essentially have been training ever since.  Initially the training was towards a fast marathon in Napa in early March, but as soon as that was done I went into UTMB mode – lots of mileage, running on tired legs as much as I could, and eventually going up and down as many hills as I could find.  I wasn’t sure how my body would stand up but I figured it was better to push months before the race and find out, than find out on race day.  Thankfully I held up pretty well, with my only downtime in May resulting from some post-Miwok shin splints.

Some stats on the training:

– I’ve averaged more than 100 miles/week for the past 3 months, with 10-14 runs each week.

– I’ve had 10 weekends where I’ve run 40-60+ miles in two days.  A few of those involved longer races, a couple involved crazy long runs on my own one day, and most were long runs in the morning both days and shorter “ultra paced” runs in the evening.

– I’m sure I could have done more hills – UTMB is all steep ups and downs – but almost every run had hills and I probably have averaged 8000-15000 feet of climbing each week for the past few months.  One day I did loops on Tiger 3 and did something like 8000 feet in 18 miles over 5 1/2 hours.  That’s steeper than UTMB and it gave me some sense for the difficulty and also some confidence that I’m up to the task.

– For the past couple months I’ve added speedwork back in 1 or 2 times each week.  This has been a variety of things – 6 minute repeats up a steep hill at 10k effort, 800 meter repeats at 5k pace, things like that.  My test workout is 3x(1 mile each at marathon pace, half marathon pace, and 10k pace).  When I did that recently it was similar in both pace and heart rate to when I did it just before the Napa Marathon.  In a way speedwork is irrelevant for UTMB – my pace for the race will average slower than 20 minute miles – but I believe that more holistic training will help me go up the hills faster and survive the downhills better.

– Three times a week I’ve been going with my family to Kinetic 6 classes, focusing on functional strength.  I think these classes have helped me run more efficiently, by engaging my glutes and core more effectively vs. relying 100% on smaller leg muscles.  I’ve also been doing various PT exercises to avoid more chronic issues like the shin splints, plantar fasciitis, calf strains, etc..

With less than 3 weeks to go, my training is essentially behind me and overall I feel it’s gone great.  Now it’s a matter of sustaining my fitness into race day, and handling the possibly/likely non-training issues that keep me awake at night.  Such as…

Weather:  I have no control over this, so aside from being prepared, I’m not worrying about it.  We’ll be in the mountains, and due to weather UTMB has changed its course or been cancelled a few times in it’s ~14 year history.  They have a better backup plan now, after a messy race in 2012, so I don’t see it being cancelled but it could be, uh, “weathery”.  We’re required to carry a lot of clothing/gear which we won’t need if the weather is good and which will be barely enough if we’re caught in a blizzard high on a pass.  The weather will be what it will be.  Hopefully we’ll get some good weather at least once during our time in Chamonix, to see what we’ll be running through.

Blisters:  This is probably my biggest concern.  I don’t have my footwear dialed in for this race in spite of trying to get there over the past few months.  My Montrail Bajada/wright socks combo got me through 100k of Miwok with no issues, but then I got blisters in a 50k a month later.  My Altra Olympus/wright socks combo got me through the White River 50 mile race very comfortably, but with blisters on one foot.  For UTMB I’ll bag balm my feet heavily, wear different socks that seem to work, and make a race time decision on Bajadas vs. Olympus.  And then I’m assuming I’ll still get blisters, so I’ll be carrying stuff to deal with them.  I had blisters under the balls of both feet for the last 40 miles of Cascade Crest – not super fun but it only slowed me down and I still finished.

Sleep deprivation:  If I have a really good race, I’ll be awake for about 45 hours.  I don’t think I’ve been awake that long before.  If I have a bad race it will be closer to 55.  Travelling through the night at Cascade Crest wasn’t really an issue for me.  I am most worried about the second night and especially that 2-6 am period when things get weird.  I’ll try to sleep well in the days before the race and maybe nap on race day (with the late start).  I’m going to try to skip the caffeine the first night and save it for the second.  And I’ll try to move fast enough so I can get to bed sooner rather than later.

Race size: UTMB is small compared to some marathons, but it’s huge compared to every trail race I’ve done.  Single track trails and large numbers don’t go together.  I’ve heard bad stories of people getting stuck behind runners slowly creeping up hills.  I’ve heard of people being elbowed off the trail by runners who don’t abide by a polite “passing on your left when you can step aside”.  I’ve read about lines at the aid stations.  I’ve read about people being stabbed by the poles that most people carry.  The common advice in these ultras is to go out slow.  I’ve heard that the Europeans tend to go out fast.  In spite of those two things, I may start pretty quickly for the first 5 (level) miles and try to get the bulk of the pack behind me.  I climb pretty well, and this plan worked well for me at White River.  If everyone is sprinting, I’ll back off and pass later when I can.  But hopefully by the first big climb (to Col de la Croix du Bonhomme), I’ll be able to run my own race.

This is already long enough so I’ll spare you the details of how I got to this, but I ended up making a crib sheet with aid stations, distances, elevation, etc., with a target finish time of 38 hours.  If I finish at all, I’ll be happy.  Finishing under 40 hours would be great considering I’m probably not in the younger half of the entrants.  But when I did all the math and looked at other people who’ve done UTMB and races I’ve done, 38 hours seemed reasonable to aim for.


P.S. I do want to thank my wife Janet, in part for coping with my single-mindedness over the past few months but also for accompanying me on a lot of those long, slow miles.  It was pretty fun doing those crazy Seattle runs with you.

Some useful links to learn more about the race:

One of the many highlight videos

Map of the UTMB course.

Elevation profile for UTMB

Susan Donnely’s write up of her experience at the 2009 race

Clare Abram’s write up of her 2013 race


  1. Good luck with the weather (Europe, I have no influence there, sorry!) and with the sleep deprivation, which is what keeps me from being interested in any ultra distance over 50M. And YAY JANET.

  2. Very cool. Have you thought about how to preserve battery life on whatever you will be using (garmin,I phone,camera?)? I was thinking they sell these battery packs for not very much at electronic stores that would give you some additional charge. Perhaps something for your one drop bag. Also on a related note, the last time I was in Europe I brought a used unlocked gsm phone I got on craigslist for $30. Combined with a SIM card I bought in the London train station for $10 it gave me several hours of talk and text usable in UK and France. Might be a cheap way to satisfy your mandatory cell phone equipment requirement. I still have mine if you want to borrow it. Stay healthy and get to that starting line!

    • Hi Jon, finally getting around to looking at comments. Thanks for your advice. I wore a simple watch – elevation would have been nice to gauge progress but I always had a sense from time or simply looking up/down. I carried my (Windows) phone – with a charged battery and battery-sucking options like wifi and email sync’ing turned off, it lasted the 38 hours fine. It’s big and barely fit in the pack’s pocket, but it did fit and I got quite good at the 10 distinct motions required to fit it in and get the zipper closed.

  3. Whoa….such a handy site.|

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