Sunday, 2 September 2012

Reflections on the UTMB

Race founder Catherine Poletti addressing the crowds

An eventful year for the UTMB with the races significantly effected by poor weather for the third year in a row. The late change of the route meant that the challenge for the competitors was very different being only two thirds of the distance and ascent of the actual UTMB. For the leading athletes this would equate to a night race arriving back in Chamonix on Saturday morning. However only one percent of the nearly 2500 runners who'd registered opted not to race the new course.

UTMB 2012 winner Francois d'Haene

2012 UTMB Champion & 5 time winner Lizzie Hawker

The UTMB 2012 podium

Every athlete involved in the UTMB has a story to tell, a fact recognised by the organisers in their press conferences and which is very much part of their ethos. In a truly international competition there were eight countries represented in the top 10 competitors from the from both the mens and womens races.

The North Face athletes were having an interesting day at the office. Seb Chaigneau was always going to have a challenging event. Just 6 weeks ago he suffered a badly cut knee in a fall which required 25 stiches. Early on last night he fell again and cut the other knee. By argientiere his vision had deteriated to such an extent that he was packed off to hospital to get checked out. The good news is he's all fine

Zigor Iturrieta was running well when again a fall at Contamine in the tricky conditions robbed him of the chance of being competitive. In the spirit of the event he opted to walk the rest of the course finishing well down the order but having had an adventure as the organisers had promised.

 Lizzie Hawker at the awards ceromony

The day belonged to 'Queen Lizzie' who received the biggest cheer of the day as she stepped onto the stage to receive her cowbell for her fifth UTMB win. Earlier she'd look almost embarrassed as she explained she wasn't one hundred percent fit having battled injury this season. Nevertheless she was 16th overall, the first time a women has featured in the top twenty. Asked about her motivation to go for a 6th title the phrases top ten and course record were mentioned. 

There are three others events in the UTMB festival of ultra running. The longest is the PTL or La Petite Trotte a Leon. This multi day experience for teams packs in 290km and 22,000m of climbing. They'd been blessed with good conditions earlier in the week but this weekends weather system had laid down 40cm of snow at the Col de la Seine. Thinking outside the box a herd of cows were driven over the pass to create a track for a few of the teams!

 Dawa Sherpa facing the press

The TDS (Sur la Traces des Ducs de Savoiewas) won by the legendary Dawa Sherpa, winner of the very first UTMB and still the holder of the fastest time. Like the CCC but slightly harder this race also starts in Courmayeur but heads clockwise around the Mont Blanc massif to finish in Chamonix after 114km and 7150m of ascent.

Tofol Bernat (in white) leading the CCC field through Courmayeur

The CCC (Courmayeur - Champex - Chamonix) race featured many of the North Face UK Sales and PR team putting minds, bodies and kit to the test. The climb over the Col Grand Ferret in deep snow in very cold but windless conditions was certainly a memorable challenge. The course had been slightly shortened missing out the first and last climbs but this doesn't detract from the herculean effort of Tofol Bernat who raced back to Chamonix in under nine hours. His reward - the amazing experience of rounding the final corner and coming face to face with the whole UTMB field cheering him home, something that even twenty four hours later left him visibly moved.

A amazing event to be part of and it may have planted a small seed in my mind! Huge thanks to the team at North Face for the invitation to follow Jez Bragg and for a very memorable night out in the rain watching thousands of runners go through the experience of the UTMB. I hope the ladies at Geneva airport who were having a little competition counting the blue gillets, which were awarded to all finishers, realise what they really mean to thousands of runners.