Sunday 3 November 2019

UTMB - lessons for next time

I wrote up my race report for UTMB and someone pointed out I was incredibly bitter and she wouldn't want to cross paths with me in race. In fairness reading it back, it is a spot on observation. I had gone in over-confident and was humbled by the race. I few things didn't go my way but the main reason I didn't finish was lack of hill training and not being mentally prepared for cut-off chasing. However I did enjoy the race and could have written a lot more about the fun and enjoyable aspects of the race

Rather than re-writing the report, I will add a more balanced angle through a lessons learned blog.

Fitness required

I have a 10+ 100 mile finishes with all but one under 24 hours. I've done a 145 miles race and knocked out a 21:41 at the SDW100 (12,000ft of climbing). I thought this would be plenty of base fitness combined with a bit of hill training. I was wrong.

In races such as the SDW and NDW, I made big chunks back on the descents. I did this on the first but stumbled on the second and was a bit rubbish after that. Running down a 150m hill isn't the same as 1,500m one.

I would add that getting the points doesn't mean you are necessarily good enough to finish. If you have only done 2 100 milers and finished say, the NDW100 and SDW100 in 29ish hours, you have the points but I would predict you would struggle big time (feel free to prove me wrong though)

Roll with the atmosphere

It is an amazing atmosphere in Chamonix for the week. I had a great place to stay which was right by the finish line. This was great for almost all the time except when the drummers started outside my room. I will bring ear plugs next time or stay a bit further from the town centre.

Don't worry too much about the first cut-off and queues

I read a few salty Facebook posts in previous years from people who DNFed early on due to missing the cutoffs. It is easy to blame the queues and being stuck in a conga train of sticks. The first 5 miles is easy trail and if you are a speedster, you could easily make up a chunk of places. After Les Houches, the first hill is a road to start with and then up a ski slope with loads of room to pass others. It is a 90 minute+ climb so plenty of time to get ahead of the cutoffs. I made it with 40 minutes to spare.

There were a lot of queues on the climb to the Bonhomme but I don't think it was a major factor as I was slow anyway. Some of the descents are bit like trying to pick your way down past slower skiers on a red run but it isn't worth taking risks to get past them.

I would caveat that I understand this isn't quite the case with TDS and CCC as these go to single track out of Courmayer fairly quickly and you can be stuck in a pack and miss the cut.

Think about the food choices

If you are vegan, the choices are very limited. I'm fairly omnivorous but took a while to get round cheese, salami, and bread being the primary food source. It works quite well - especially when combined with the soups.

The tailwind equivalent is overstim. It sounds like a bad name but was alright actually. I might try to get some imported to use in advance. They have copious amounts of proper coca-cola which was good. No worries about the sugar tax in France. There were TUC biscuits and choc chip cookies which were fine. No gels but overstim bars which I didn't fancy.

SiS gels screwed me over but I will learn to get fresh ones or a different brand next time. High5 ones last for ever, SiS don't even last to their best before date.

People are much friendlier than the blogs say

They aren't all as miserable as the person who wrote my race report. Sure there is a language barrier but a lot of people were willing to chat - especially on some of the longer climbs. This can help when you are going through a bad patch.

I met people from lots of countries including

Denmark - a guy who trained on a 45m high rubbish dump
Brits - quite a few Brits
Aussies - I even had a quick chat about Ben Stokes
South Africa - a couple who I crossed paths many times
HK & China - lots especially after I dropped. Thanks for buying me the beer after I DNF'ed
Japan - coming out of Courmayer I practiced my Japanese. He took it in good spirits
NZ - coming out of Les Chapieux. Only 4 Kiwis in the race apparently.
USA - loads including someone who shared his name with colleague Kevin Hong.
Brazil and Argentina - two guys were running together including with one in an Argentina shirt. I called the Aguero and Neymar. Good bit of football chat coming into St Gervais.
France - my basic French got me into a bit of trouble
Greece - a bit of Spartathlon chat
Belgium - less said about that the better : )
Canada - we met some before the race

The support in the streets is incredible. I did lots of high fives and mercis. It was cool to change into Italy and speak Italian. Thanks also to the Brits who were supporting and made a big deal of any Brits who came past.

The support for finishers is something else. Seeing the TDSers come down the final street was awesome. Shame I didn't get to experience it first hand...

It is also nice to bump into friends in town and to spot a few "celebs". I had a burrito next to Hayden Hawks. I had a beer with David Harvey too!


- Almost everyone uses a number belt. I went Brit style with my number pinned to my shorts. Not helpful if you change shorts or need to put trousers on.
- My Salomon waterproof wasn't good enough when it properly rained. I have since bought a Montane Spine jacket which is a proper bit of kit
- Put stickers on or mark your poles. Everyone has one of 3 brands and it might be easy to pick up the wrong ones.
- According to the shoe survey, only 3 people out of 2,000 were wearing my Mizuno trail shoes. They were ok but maybe there is a reason they aren't more popular.
- Almost everyone uses poles. Buy them as soon as you get into the race. They are rarely on sale so just bit the bullet and buy some. Start training with them in January not in July. Having said that, I'm sure loads are available second hand just after UTMB.

This is a great article which is spot on. My training was inadequate as it turns out. The two people I know who have finished UTMB spent a lot of time in either Chamonix or Brecon Beacons. A lot of DNFed didn't. Might be coincidence but it can't do any harm. This is a great article to read and probably more enlightening than anything I can add

Very interesting stat that the Brits DNF rate is 60% compared with 30% for other countries. I have certainly helped that stat.

Final thoughts

I guess the UTMB is a bit like the London marathon. It is oversubscribed, has a lot of hype, and lots of queues. However there is a lot of great things and I would love to come back and try to finish again one day. It is a very tough race and not to be underestimated. I typically finish in the top 30% of 100 mile races so figured I would easily finish a race with a 60% finish rate. That does a huge disservice to those who have fought their way to the start line.

So sign up to the ballot if you get a chance. I'm sure there are better races out there with fewer crowds and less hype but it is quite a global circus that is unique.

Here is the original blog

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