It’s the final few weeks before the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, and there are several thousand nervous runners, spread across the world, who are making their final preparations for this infamous trail running race. The UTMB is the holy grail for many trail runners, a 170km route around Mont Blanc, involving over 10,000m of height gain. On average only half the starters reach the finish. Here’s our top 10 tips to help you get the elusive finishers jacket…
This article is written by Kingsley Jones, two times UTMB finisher (and twice TDS and once CCC finisher in the same race series), and author of the Cicerone Press trail running guidebook to Chamonix, and this race. For details about the book, click here. He’s also a UIMLA guide, who leads the majority of our trail running trips, click here.
Top Tip 1: Get to the start early and organised – The huge mass start of the UTMB is equally emotional and terrifying, but you can help get yourself settled by packing your bag in plenty of time, leaving your drop bag early, and getting into the start pen to secure a good position. There’s no point being behind the elite pen, if you are planning a 46 hour race on the cut off times, but remove the stress of being the last over the start line by arriving in time. It’ll allow you to relax before the manic pre-race build up.
Top Tip 2: Run your race – It sounds silly, but it’s important that you run your UTMB, not someone else’s. Keep to your race plan, and don’t be swayed by the actions of those around you. Start off steady and concentrate on saving energy, consolidate your place in the middle section of the race, and hopefully you’ll have conserved enough for the last part of the course when others are fading or failing. Don’t underestimate the hype and pressure of this race, and keep your personal focus, and to your race plan.
Top Tip 3: It goes dark soon – As the race starts in the early evening, have a head torch to hand in an easy access pocket, as most require it before reaching St Gervais. There’s nothing more frustrating than fumbling around finding it in your pack, whilst tens of runners pass you by. Ensure your torch has new batteries in it, as you will run at least one full night, if not two. In late August and September the nights are starting to draw in, so there’s 10 hours of darkness to plan ahead for. Practise running in the dark too, to ensure your speed doesn’t drop in the hours of darkness.
Top Tip 4: Prepare for all weathers – The obligatory kit list of the UTMB is often scoffed at by runners for being too much. Waterproof trousers, two pairs of gloves, two head torches, the last goes on. Don’t question it for a second. I’d never run in waterproof trousers until my first UTMB when we crossed the Col du Bonhomme in ankle deep fresh snow. You can’t change head torch batteries when it’s dark and pouring with rain. The kit list is very precise, and it’s essential. Kit checks are done on the course, so you could be disqualified if you don’t comply. Practise your final training runs carrying all your UTMB kit, so you know how your pack feels fully loaded.
Top Tip 5: Immerse yourself in the race – You are reliant on support from all the amazing individuals who help at the aid stations and along the course. Make a point of thanking them for their help. I’ve seen some runners arrogantly treating the volunteers as staff. They are unpaid, and giving their time for free. You get out what you put in, and a simple thanks or a smile will get you looked after that bit better, and will make your race that bit more enjoyable, and a positive experience. It’s a case of positive thinking, and psychology, to boost your mental state when you are likely to be fragile at times.
Top Tip 6: Don’t get star struck – Yes the hot pants of Anton Krupica may be infeasibly short and tight, but if you are running with him, you don’t need to read this article! The hype and build up to this race is enormous. The social media attention is huge. The pressure on amateur runners is big. It’s easy to be swept along with undue pressure to perform better than usual. Try and detach yourself from the hype, and let the stars who are used to it, feel the pressure, and perform for their sponsors. That’s not for the majority to worry about. Let the elite pen blast off at the start, and leave them to it.
Top Tip 7: Eat real food – Gels aren’t going to work for this race. They’ll make you sick, and there’s no way your stomach can endure them for up to nearly two days of continuous use. The aid stations are well stocked with simple foods like dried meat, cheese, biscuits, cake, fruit, and vermicelli soup. There are a couple of stations where you can get a main meal. Eat the food that you usually eat during the day, as your body is used to processing it, and listen to what it tells you in terms of cravings. Your pallet will naturally seek food types that it requires, such as salty items to maintain electrolytes.
Top Tip 8: Draw strength from the event – It’s easy to be over-awed by the scale, pomp, and glitz of the UTMB. Remember that every runner will feel the same, so you are not alone. Even the volunteers are awed at the size of the event and the logistics. It’s a huge event, unlike any other, and it’s popularity means there are spectators in the most unlikely places along the whole route, and there’s always great support. You really won’t be alone, and the enormity of the event provides you frequent encouragement.
Top Tip 9: Study the profile – Running a 105 mile / 170 km race is a silly idea. Adding in a gruelling 10,000m of ascent, and equal amounts of descent, is mind boggling. You need to be aware of the next elements of the course to prepare physically, nutritionally and mentally for it. Don’t over cook it on a long descent, when you might need the quads to be in good shape for an immediate re-ascent. Plan where you can eat, to allow time for the food to give you energy for the next major ascent. Laminate a profile and carry it to study during the race, and relying on memory rarely works when you are tired.
Top Tip 10: Visualise the finish – You need to know what it is that will spur you on to reach the finish. It doesn’t matter if it’s earning the highly respected finishers jackets (see photo above), meeting your partner or friends at the finish line, or simply reaching the culmination of all your dreaming and training. Remember what is driving you to do this race, as the visualisation of the finish and why you are racing will pick you up in the low points during the race. Having a clear idea of what the finish means to you is essential.
If you are keen to see what this race is actually like, whether you dream of running the event or not, we offer a full race recce week each year. For full details, click here, and you can view the video of the recce this year below. Happy running, and good luck to all of you who are running the UTMB this year! Enjoy it…