It was a 10-year goal to run and finish UTMB. This dream began two and a half years ago after a failed summit up Mt. Rainier led me to sign up and race the Grindstone 100 two months later to begin the qualifying process for UTMB. I completed the Kodiak 100 and Mogollon 105km last year, finishing 3rd place and 2nd place, respectively, and together with Grindstone earned the points needed to qualify for the lottery for this year’s UTMB race (despite the qualifying criteria, each year there are still more people who qualify than spots available). I found out in early January of this year that I had been one of the approximately 2.500 runners selected for this year’s race.
Andrea and I spent July in Andorra and August in a small town outside Chamonix so I could focus and train for this year’s UTMB race. I also raced the Mont Blanc 90km race in late June to prepare and ran a 3-day preview of the UTMB course in early August. I was well prepared going into tho race and as I do for most races, I went into it with 3 goals: first, to finish (always my first goal!); second, to finish in under 30-hours; third, to finish in the top 100 – my “A” goal if everything went well.
With an amazing crew, a lot of training(!) and a bit of luck, I’m thankful to say I was able to achieve all 3 goals. I finished in 28:02:57 for 69th place overall (out of the 2543 starters) and was one of the top Americans to finish this year’s race. Following is my race report for this year’s 2019 UTMB.
UTMB is a 170km race that circles Mt Blanc, starting and ending in Chamonix, France. The course gains 10.000 meters of elevation and descends 10.000 meters, so it is like going from sea-level to the top of Mt Everest, and back down, over the course of the race.
List of mandatory gear here.
I ran with my usual Salomon set-up (shorts/shoes/belt/pack) and Suunto Ambit 3 Peak. I used Overstim.s for fuel, Montane for my waterproof kit (super light!) and ran with Compresssport socks. I also used Leki poles and a belt for my race bib so I could easily swap out jerseys without having to re-attach my race bib.
I did everything I could to lighten my kit, from cutting out tags in my clothing to carrying a Crosscall phone (lighter than my smartphone) to running with only 500ml of water at a time (because of my training run, I knew where I could refill from streams and fountains along the way). I didn’t have a scale to weigh my pack, but it was light.
In addition to the gear above, I also carried with me time charts that I wrote out and laminated with scotch tape (thank you Andrea!). The time charts (included in the write-up below) also included nutrition information and target calorie intake. My crew swapped them out at Courmayeur and Champex-Lac so I was only carrying one at a time. Finally, I had planned out and prepared drop bags for my crew who would be meeting me at the 4 crew stops. I included, in addition to food & fuel, spare shoes, socks, shirts, etc. in addition to blister kits, sunscreen and other medical items we might potentially need. I spent days planning all this out.
After running the UTMB course earlier in the month, I broke the race down into 3 phases. My goal in Phase 1 was to start slow and eat (a lot), my goal in Phase 2 was to get into a good rhythm but not push, and my goal in Phase 3 was to push (at least as much as I could!). For more information on each section and how I came up with my target splits, please see my previous post Previewing UTMB: 3 Days of Running around Mont Blanc.
Phase 1: Chamonix <> Courmayeur
I arrived to the line about 45 minutes before the start and was one of the later non-elite runners to arrive (we were told to arrive a minimum of 1 hour before). It was raining so I tried to stay indoors and dry for as long as I could before heading to the line, hoping the weather might clear before having to leave for the start. I hopped a metal barrier gate at the start and made my way into the front 1/4 of runners. I knew I’d be going slow off the start, so I wasn’t worried about making my way too far to the front. We waited in the rain as they announced and lined up the “elites” in the front.
As expected, when the race started most people shot out like it was a 10k. I let whoever wanted to pass me easily go by but did make sure I had a very wide and rigid stance (elbows out!) to keep people as far away from my running zone as possible. If I needed to make a lateral move left or right I put out my arms first to block anyone who might run into me. After hearing stories of runners tripping up over other runners early in the race and ending their race with an off-the-start injury, I wanted to make sure that didn’t happen to me. Lots of people passed me on the way to Les Houches. That was fine. I was staying calm, relaxed and not using much energy – my goal. I stopped to use the restroom once along the path to Les Houches and entered into the first aid station feeling relaxed. I grabbed water, gave some high-fives to the local kids, and made my way out to begin the first climb of the race.
We had an 800m climb up before heading down to Saint Gervais. The rain had stopped in Chamonix but thunder and lightening started off to one side, I can’t remember which. Despite the threat, the rain held off as we made our way up. The crowd here was great, cowbells, cheering and all. There were a few other climbs like this in the race and I thought this must be what it feels like on some of the climbs in the Tour de France, although at this point I was still feeling calm and relaxed, which I doubt is the case at that race on such climbs. I made sure to run my own race and not to push it. The deep breathes of some gave away that they were pushing it. I wondered how they would keep that up for another 20+ hours.
The descent to Saint-Gervais is and was fast. I went slightly faster than I wanted but managed to keep things under control. I had a couple close calls passing folks on some of the narrow descents, nearly tripping at one point and stubbing my toe in the process, a blood blister soon forming that thankfully wouldn’t cause too much trouble over the course of the race. The atmosphere coming into Saint-Gervais was electric, running down the middle of the streets into town and after passing through the aid station, back out, all the way crowds on either side of the road lined shoulder to shoulder. I refilled my water, grabbed some food and made my way out in under 30 seconds, walking out as I finished some food.
The next section was fun, flowing and easy. I put on my headlamp soon after leaving Saint-Gervais and soon started passing people who went out too quickly. I made sure to keep running my own race and not to push. Despite taking it easy, I was soaked by the time I came into Les Contamines! I had heard stories about the humidity but having trained in the area the prior few weeks was surprised just how much I was sweating despite taking it easy. The windbreaker I kept in the front of my pack for easy access by this time was completely soaked, which meant it would be of no use up the next big climb as we headed into the night. I’d have to figure that out as I went, eventually extending it between both hands, like a sail, to help air it out as I made the climb up to Col du Bonhomme.
The aid station in Les Contamines was packed but thankfully my awesome crew lead (Tina!) was looking out for me and found me as soon as I came in. She brought me to our tiny space on a bench, packed between equally sweaty racers on both sides of me, and went to work re-stocking my vest. I also changed into a dry shirt and grabbed some extra night gear. I was in and out in about 8 minutes.
I left Les Contamines slowly, walking as I tried to eat more food and digest what I had already eaten. I let a few people pass as I got my food down. I knew we had a big climb ahead so wanted to make sure I was properly fueled as we began the 1.300m ascent to Col du Bonhomme. I did this climb one extra time between my 3-day preview of the UTMB course and the race, so I knew what to expect and there were no surprises. Just settled in and made my way up. I refilled from a stream on the way up and made sure to watch my footing on the last few kilometers to the top, where it is a bit more runnable but at the same time a bit more tricky footing-wise. By the time I made it to La Balme, I was 14 minutes off my target pace, although I wasn’t overly focused on my time at that point, other than making sure I was not ahead of my target pace. I had a good, consistent effort to the top and a nice descent into Les Chapieux, again being careful knowing from the preview earlier in the month that there were some tricky and slippery sections on the way down. Thankfully, no falls or close calls. I made my way into Les Chapieux in 06:53:18 versus my target elapsed time of 06:47:15 and by then had made my way up from 615th at Les Houches to 218th by the time I got to Les Chapieux.
I was in and out of Les Chapieux in 7 minutes according to my splits on the UTMB site, which seems about right. This time included the first of two mandatory gear checks. Going into the race, I made sure to know where all my mandatory gear was packed in my kit and made sure it was easily accessible, so the gear check wasn’t an issue time-wise. I ate as much as I could in the few minutes I was in the tent, and also refilled one 500ml bottle with an Overstim.s concentrate (I ran with one 500ml bottle of water but carried a second 500ml bottle with food/fuel only, which was lighter than carrying an equivalent amount of calories in bar form. I did carry gels as well but wanted enough variety in my calories to not upset my stomach).
I lost 25 minutes off my target time between Les Chapieux and Lac Combal, although it was on par with what I ran this section in my training run (2:56:07 on the training run vs 3:03:18 at the race), especially if you consider the 7 minutes at the aid station that went into this split. I’m not sure how much more I could have pushed in this section at night. It’s pretty technical near the top of the climb and the first part of the descent, and at night, didn’t think it was worth taking any more risk than needed so early in the race. There is a lot of time between Les Chapieux and the next aid station. I filled up water in a small stream which held me over but I’m sure others were running low (or carrying a lot of weight coming out of Les Chapieux) which I didn’t want to do, especially given the 1.200m of climbing on this section. The climb was very special (although tough!) with the steady string of headlamps in front and behind you. It feels magical being in the middle of nowhere yet connected to a community of runners pushing together into the darkness of the night. I was steadily passing people on the way up which was of course good for morale, but again not pushing it. At the top was the first of a few helicopter transports. Someone was throwing up as I passed by. I wondered if they would take the helicopter down. After getting out of the technical part of the first bit of the descent, the remainder of the descent to the aid station is quite enjoyable – not too steep and very runnable. Looking back, I wish I had eaten more in this section.
Not too much to report on the next two sections. I decided to put on my wind breaker on the flat fire road after leaving the Lac Combal aid station, but was immediately sweating once I began the next climb. On the descent into Col Checrouit my headlamp battery ran low and impaired my vision. Rather than stopping to switch it out, I pulled out my spare headlamp, a Petzl Bindi, and carried it in my hand to supplement my main lighting source (I carried 2 Bindi lamps to meet the mandatory gear requirements – a lighter set-up than carrying a duplicate of my main headlamp). Once I got to Col Checrouit I had to switch out batteries.
As I knew it would be, the descent to Courmayeur was steep! I passed a few people on the way down but again tried not to push it and to not make any silly mistakes. I made it down a few minutes faster than the training run, which I’m pleased with looking back on it since the race descent was in the dark. I arrived in Courmayeur in 11:55:12 versus a target elapsed time of 11:16:09 and by now was in 149th position.
I stayed in the aid station here for 15 minutes. Tina, my crew lead, re-packed my pack while going through a verbal checklist to see how I was doing physically and mentally, adjusting her aid and support based on my answers. I felt pretty good, so no need for any big interventions other than what we had planned going into the race for this aid station: re-pack my back; change shoes and socks; eat and drink. Despite a wide variety of foods available, cheese was the only thing I was really able to eat solid-wise (I’m glad I trained with cheese on my long runs!). Tina dressed up my feet with foot-goo, helped get my shoes on, change shirts and massaged and rolled out my legs as I ate what I could. She made sure I didn’t leave until I got enough calories in. I took one last big bite of a cheese sandwich and left as I chewed. I was greeted by the rest of my crew outside (only 1 person per crew is allowed inside the aid stations), a big morale boost as they walked with me while I finished the bite I had just taken and took a few minutes to digest what I could.
I left the first Phase in pretty good shape. 12:10:57 as I left the aid station and in 133rd place. It would be another 7-8 hours before I would see my crew again.
My segment splits, position and time vs target are below for each segment.
Les Houches – 00:44:53 (615) +0:04:23
Saint-Gervais – 02:26:42 (417) -0:02:08
Les Contamines – 01:21:53 (334) +0:00:38
La Balme – 01:19:08 (254) +0:11:38
Les Chapieux – 01:45:35 (218) -0:08:28
Lac Combal – 03:03:18 (171) +0:25:15
Col Checrouit Maison Vieille – 01:26:02 (152) +0:00:50
Courmayeur – 00:32:34 (149) +0:06:55
Segment 1 Total: 11:55:12 | 149th | +0:39:03 vs target pace
Phase 2: Courmayeur <> Champex-Lac
After getting out of Courmayeur and digesting my food, I started to feel good. The sun was coming up, I had fresh shoes and shirt and I had just gotten in a bunch of calories. Leaving Courmayeur is great because it’s slightly too steep to run (for me at least), but not too steep that you have a high heart rate, so it’s perfect for digesting a bunch of food. I was thankful for that, and later in the race would take advantage of a similar situation leaving Vallorcine (it’s not like this at say Champex-Lac where it’s flat and runnable as soon as you leave the aid station).
After a couple kilometers, however, the road out of Courmayeur turns into an impressively steep climb. In my preview run, I did this in the middle of the day when it was hot, so though steep, it felt nice doing the climb in the cool of the early morning. I passed 10 people on the way up to Refuge Bertone, and when I got there didn’t need to stop for long other than to refill my water bottle. I grabbed a handful of food and a coke but was probably in and out in under a minute. I was really excited for the next section of the race.
Between Bertone and Bonatti is probably the most enjoyable part of the whole race: long, flowing ridgeline running with beautiful views to the valley below and the mountains across the valley. It’s truly special, and as I was running that section couldn’t help but to feel thankful and grateful. I ran this section about 10 minutes faster than my target time, making up for the time I had lost coming out of Courmayeur. I felt good and was having fun. I got in and out of Bonatti pretty quickly as well, and again ran the section slightly faster than my target split. I arrived into Arnouvaz in 111th position with a total elapsed time of 15:04:21.
Crew was not allowed at this aid station, but they would have been incredibly helpful here. You rely on crew to be your “brains” in a lot of situations because your brain is not fully functioning for much of a long race like this. Case in point: I blew through this aid station without taking in any calories. I was feeling great, so I kept going(!) – failing to remember that the reason I was feeling so good was because of all the food I had been eating. Needless to say, a low point was on its way. Arnouvaz to La Fouly would be the toughest part of my race, physically and mentally, and I thought about quitting several times.
Whatever energy I had left in the tank, I used on the climb to Grand Col Ferret. I passed a few people on the way up, but was moving slowly, at least it felt like I was moving slowly (looking at the split, it was actually 10 minutes faster than my course preview run). Thankfully, it was still early enough in the morning the sun wasn’t blasting down on us (the climb is without shade and can get hot when the sun is out). I stopped for water at a small stream on the way up. It looked like everyone was struggling. When I made it to the top I felt like I didn’t have anything left. My plan going into the race was to start the race at this point, and to have enough in the tank to carry good speed from this point to La Fouly, and from La Fouly to the start of the climb to Champex-Lac, since a lot of these kilometers are downhill and runnable. The first part of the descent, though, is pretty steep and I didn’t have the muscles to control my descent, so I wasn’t able to go very fast. Several runners passed me here, the first time in the whole race, outside the start, I had been passed. That was a downer mentally. I heard a voice in my head telling me to quit, that it was okay, lots of people were dropping, and hey, “you ran out of energy, happens to the best of ’em,” but I let it say what it wanted to say and just kept moving forward. The next hour and a half into La Fouly was the worst part of the race for me. By that point my stomach couldn’t get anything down and I had no more energy.
I made it to La Fouly and knew I had to triage the situation. I told myself I wouldn’t leave until I got in calories. Unfortunately, my go-to at the aid stations up to that point (cheese!) I couldn’t get down either. Watermelon to the rescue. I spent 10 minutes shoving watermelon into my mouth. It didn’t get me back to 100%, but got me out of the hole I was in. I still wasn’t feeling good, but was able to keep moving. I walked out of the aid station after staying there for 9 minutes and was passed by a few more people on the way out. This ended up being only a temporary mental bummer. After getting passed, I kept them in my sight and kept them there for the next section of the race as we approached the climb to Champex-Lac. This was a big mental boost. I dunked my head under a fountain in the town before that climb, and also refilled my bottle. It was starting to get hot. By the time we got to the start of the climb, there was a group of 5-10 of us all within a few minutes of one another, with me at the back of the group.
This would end up being one of the toughest climbs of the race. By this time in the day, it was hot. The climb was pretty steep and I think we all ran low on water. Thankfully, about half way up the climb, there was a spot to refill, of which most of us took advantage. Me and a couple others began to pull away from the rest of the folks in the group, and by the time I had made it to Champex-Lac, I had passed 7 people since the last aid station. I was tired as I came into the aid station, but seeing my crew (Andrea, my mom and Cipri) lifted my spirits. As she did throughout the race, Tina my crew lead, went to work on me once I was in the official restricted part of the aid station accessible to only runners and their single crew lead. I would stay here for 14 minutes. Tina made sure I got down food (by this point I was able to eat a bit more than watermelon), drank plenty of fluids (sparkling water, coke), changed shoes/socks/jersey, etc. She also rolled out and massaged my legs, in addition to giving me a much needed pep talk. A lot of runners, especially top runners, dropped at this aid station. I left the aid station and had another mandatory gear check, and then was on my way, Andrea, my mom and Cipri walking and eventually jogging with me as I made my way around the lake. From here on out, I would get to see them every couple of hours at each of the remaining aid stations prior to Le Flegere. This was a huge mental boost. Just get to the next aid station, I would tell myself.
Despite the low point for a few hours from Arnouvaz to Champex-Lac, I ended up doing this segment in 10:20:00, only 10 minutes off my target time, which put me ~50 minutes off my total target elapsed time. I left Champex-Lac in 94th place overall, having finally broken into the top 100, in a total elapsed time of 19:37:29.
Segment splits, position and time vs target are below for each segment.
Refuge Bertone – 1:26:29 (123) +0:13:59
Refuge Bonatti – 0:59:18 (114) -0:08:12
Arnouvaz – 0:43:22 (111) -0:01:11
La Fouly – 2:22:30 (101) -0:04:15
Champex-Lac – 2:10:38 (94) +0:09:59
Segment 2 Total: 10:20:00 | 94th | +0:10:20
Phase 3: Champex-Lac <> Chamonix
Not a whole lot to say about this segment. You have 3 big climbs that, by this point in the race, sometimes feel you aren’t making any progress at all going up. I felt like I was moving in place at times, or worse, slowly going back down! But everyone was struggling by this point, moving slowly, feeling crappy – and by now it’s also hot. The fact that everyone was suffering made it a bit easier, in my opinion. You just dug deep and kept moving, harnessing whatever you had deep down inside, spirit I suppose since anything physical was by this point gone, and kept going, one step at a time. I lost 30 minutes in this segment compared to my target time, but felt good overall. The last climb was brutally steep, but seeing my crew at the bottom and part way up was the mental boost I needed to get to the top, moving pretty well actually. I had to put on my headlamp on the way to Le Flegere, and knowing this section could easily end the race with one misplaced placed step, tried to take it easy and be safe. I got to and through Le Flegere and then it was just the final descent.
I had caught up to a runner coming into Le Flegere and racing with more heart than brain, tried to pass him on the descent, and after having done so, tried to put some quick distance in between us so he would mentally let me go. As I made my move though, one wrong, misplaced step and I found myself in what felt like a slow-motion somersault off the side of the trail. In reality it must have happened in less than a few seconds. Miraculously, I was uninjured, although in a bit of shock. The runner, who screamed as he saw it unfold, stayed with me after helping pull me back up to the trail with his pole. I was dirty from the tumble but no broken bones or head trauma, which given the fall should have been likely. Someone was watching out for me. I did lose my wedding ring in the whole ordeal. Somehow that came off in the tumble. Tina would later say that was my tribute to the mountain, what I had to give up, for it to give me my safety and health in return. I took it easy the next few minutes, and eventually started moving again at a good, steady but safe pace. I caught up to the runner who helped me, and eventually passed him again. I wasn’t racing at this point, just trying to get down in one piece. As the single-track trail turned into a fire road, I knew we were getting close. I made my way down to the road crossing, crossed the makeshift metal bridge for runners to get over the road, and continued on into Chamonix. By now I could see people cheering, with about 1 more kilometer to go. The cheering and number of people grew louder as I made my way closer and closer into tho town, until I found myself on the main road into Chamonix, a steady cheer of people, kids and high-fives greeting me as I made my way to the finish. As I made the final bend to the finish line, Andrea appeared out of nowhere, grabbed my hand and led me in. It had been a long day, and I was both happy and thankful to see her. What started over 28 hours before, and in some ways more than two years ago, was now over.
Trient – 2:55:06 (76) +0:15:33
Vallorcine – 2:04:40 (72) +0:03:40
La Flegere – 2:29:23 (70) +0:09:47
Chamonix – 0:56:19 (69) -0:00:23
Segment 3 Total: 6:20:48 | 69th | +0:28:37
Overall: 28:02:57 | 69th overall | +1:18:00
Reflections & Takeaways
It takes a crew.
I think this is a big difference between “100-milers” and the shorter distance races. While it’s certainly possible to do long races without a crew, I don’t think it’s possible to reach your full potential without one. Racing without a crew means sacrificing time, weight, and other factors. Not to mention the intangible and difficult to quantify benefits to your morale that result from seeing family, friends and loved ones along the way. Finally, racing these long distances invariably involves figuring things out as you go, and solving a handful of problems that will emerge over the course of the race. Having extra hands, and more importantly brains, is invaluable, especially when, as I showed earlier, your brain isn’t quite working. A big thanks to Andrea, my mom, and Tina and Cipri (who flew in from Phoenix!) for making this possible for me.
Training (smart) is key.
This is obvious, but worth repeating. I added “smart” because not everyone’s training should be the same. For me, I knew coming out of my last race that I needed to work on descent speed, so I made sure to incorporate that into my training over the summer. I also knew I wanted to focus on volume over speed given the length of this course and the amount of climbing involved. I incorporated a UTMB-preview run into my training. You can’t get around the time you need to put in the office, so to speak, when preparing for a race like this. But simply going through the motions is not enough. It pays to be thoughtful and intentional, based on your individual needs. Listen to your body; often it will tell you what you need to be doing.
So is nutrition.
Racing at a high level, or attempting to as I was trying to do, means that you have to think about nutrition as part of training, not in addition to it. Adapting your stomach and diet to the intensity and duration of effort is important. Knowing when you need carbs vs fats based on your zone of effort, is something to dial in and understand before you get to the start line. I still have a lot of work to do here but got started in the months prior to UTMB. Some of my long runs for example, I was incorporating a combination of fats and carbs, focusing on one vs the other, depending on the intensity level and how far along I was into the run. If I hadn’t worked with eating cheese during my training, for example, I’m not sure I would have been able to get through the race as effectively on a pure-carb diet, especially early in the race at an easier effort.
Perhaps put another way: be smart. It makes no sense to start out at a pace you can’t sustain for the entire race. After spending so many months and hours of time preparing for such a big race, it blows my mind that people go out so fast in the beginning of the race. Because racers will continue doing so, this is an easy way to gain an easy comparative advantage by just being smart and going out at an easy, relaxed pace that doesn’t stress your breathing. My goal was to “go slow” until the top of Col Ferret at ~103km into the race.
Small things matter.
Another part of being smart, if you want to realize your full potential, pay attention to the details. Small things add up, especially over 170km and 24+ hours. The cumulative effect of an extra ounce of unnecessary weight over 24 hours is a lot! Adapt during the course of the race and look for anywhere you can claw back time. For example, because of my preview run, I knew after leaving Vallorcine that there would be a 30 minute slightly uphill section that I wouldn’t be able to run at that point in the race. Knowing that and the fact that I was behind my target time, I adjusted as I went, letting my crew lead know as I went into the aid station that I wanted to load up on food in my vest, and then keep going. I could walk and eat over that next section before the final big climb. That worked out well.