This insanely useful UTMB guide covers all you need to succeed at the UTMB and deal with everything that can make or break your race. We have multiple UTMB starts and finishes between us on the team at 33Fuel. Rest assured this is hard-won, race-tested advice.
From drop bags to walking poles, headtorches to support crew, and aid station food to course markings, here’s all you need to know about the ultimate mountain ultra.
UTMB trekking poles
The biggest pre-UTMB question – poles, or no poles?
The answer, unequivocally, is poles. Every time. 99.9% of the UTMB field will be using poles and for very good reason.
This course is unfeasibly lumpy and poles take the sting out of those repeated, and monstrous, ascents and descents. Over 103 miles, this small advantage easily adds up to the difference between finishing or not.
While a handful of pros may forego poles, they are the absolute exception and many pros still use them – the race has been won both with and without poles.
UTMB finishers, with poles. A very common sight in Chamonix around late August
Which poles to buy for the UTMB?
The lightest you can find. Most of us here have been using flyweight Raidlight ones for years. They don’t make the model we love any more, but still have a lot of light ones.
Full length or collapsible poles?
The ability to collapse the poles is of limited use – after one or two breakdowns/buildups you’ll quickly realise it’s more effort than it’s worth, especially when you need to save everything you’ve got for the course, and will carry them permanently extended, just like everyone else. The simplest way to do this while running and not using them is to grip them lightly in your palms, parallel to the ground. Then when you need them for climbing or descending simply swing ’em into action.
One key point of trail etiquette here is to always point the pointy ends in front of you so you never risk inadvertently stabbing a following runner.
Poles are not a compulsory item on the UTMB kit list, but you can only use them if you start the race with them, and if you do that, you have to finish it with them too. There’s no picking up/dropping off of poles en route.
33Fuel's Warren demonstrates perfect pole form mid-UTMB
Note pointy ends forward to avoid stabbing other runners
UTMB course marking and navigation
The course is fully marked. You don’t need to navigate and have no need to worry even during the long stretches you will undoubtedly spend without anyone else in sight, particularly during the second half of the race.
Markers take the form of reflective tape and glow sticks hung from tree branches (visible as easily at night as during the day), marshalls at major road crossings, and arrows spray painted onto the road in front of you. Keep your eyes open and you’ll never go wrong. If you’ve gone more than a few hundred metres without seeing a marker, you’ve taken a wrong turn. Back track.
Aid stations are also brilliantly marked with boards showing how far you’ve come, how far to the next aid station, and, crucially, how much ascent and descent there is to get you there
UTMB drop bags
One drop bag is allowed at the UTMB and goes to the halfway checkpoint at Courmayeur. The bag is provided when you sign in before the race. You stick your race number to it (also provided), stash it with whatever you want, and then hand it back in on the morning of race day. It will then be waiting you at the gym in courmayeur in a rank laid out as you arrive. The super switched on, and ever-smiling, marshalls, will dig it out for you in no time and take it back again when you leave.
What to put in your UTMB drop bag?
Your call entirely, but our key recommendations are:
1 A clean shirt and dry socks: do wonders for morale, as does dry gear when you’ve just spent all night in a thunderstorm.
You smell like a hobo, look like a hobo, and feel like a hobo. But with just one fresh pair of socks you are miraculously transformed into an awesome runner once more. Magic
2 Suncream: P20 is the best. Lord knows what’s in it - the stuff smells like falling into a chemical factory - but it’s the only all-day, waterproof suncream we know that actually works and this is after tests everywhere from the UTMB to the Marathon des Sables. Slop it on in during your Courmayeur pit-stop, forget until the end of the race.
3 Nutrition: Top up your supplies in Courmayeur too, we also recommend stashing some extras to eat during your stop here. Our number one choice would be one of our Pre and Post Workout Shakes to help kickstart your ongoing recovery (you’ve just run over 50 mountain miles) and double as ‘breakfast’ (it will be morning by this stage after all), as well as a hearty hit of whatever treats float your boat. We suggest packing one savoury and one sweet because you never know what you’ll fancy at this stage.
How to manage your UTMB drop bag
You will be mentally and physically done in at this point, no matter how high or low you feel so we always recommend a checklist for drop bag situations. A note on your phone is perfect (a working phone is on the mandatory kit list anyway). This way you can read it approaching the checkpoint and remind yourself what you need to do there, while also double checking it before leaving the checkpoint to avoid those annoying moments ten miles down the trail when you remember you forgot your Chia Energy Gel, sunglasses, lucky gonk, etc.
“It’s the end of August, it’ll be boiling won’t it?"
Technically it should be, but this course is a) massive, and b) high in the mountains. The UTMB doesn’t do predictable weather. Scorching hot dry races are as common as snowbound ones drowned in permanent rain.
Take all of your kit for all conditions, pare down to what you need on race day.
'It's August, it'll be sunny right?' Erm, maybe not. The UTMB does this sort of thing. A lot
Great pieces of kit for surviving any UTMB weather with a smile are:
1 Buffs/neckwarmers: superlight, fast drying and super versatile. These make a great sweatband when it’s hot, a great warming layer when cold either as a hat or a draft seal around your neck. Carry two for max usefulness if the weather’s looking crap
2 Sun visors: keep the sun off your face without toasting your noggin in the heat, also excellent at keeping rain out of your eyes when it’s lashing down
3 Lightweight waterproof trousers: whether they’re £10 ones from Millets (Gore-Tex for your legs is a bit OTT after all unless you have cash to burn) or posh ones, just make sure they’re light. Rain or not, these really help take the bite out of high and freezing summits late at night when temperatures have plummeted
Which headtorch to take to the UTMB?
Headtorches have come a long way since the days of strapping a large battery pack to the back of your head, but not all technological innovation is a good thing. The keys for a good UTMB headtorch are:
- It works
- It’s comfortable. You will be wearing it for a l-o-n-g time
- It has fresh batteries and you’re carrying spares (these are compulsory anyway)
- It’s as light as possible
- Everything else is detail
UTMB headtorch etiquette
Being tired is no excuse for blinding the kindly volunteers at checkpoints or your crew.
Turn your headtorch off or slide it around to one side as you come in to any checkpoint. Only a small thing, but a massive help for someone who's already had a few hundred unwitting torches in the face.
He might be an elite runner in a hurry but he's still remembered to turn his head torch off in the aid station thus guaranteeing extra love from all checkpoint staff
UTMB pacers and support crew
No pacers are allowed at the UTMB, so that’s an easy one to deal with.
On the subject of support crews, these are allowed for everyone but rules are tight and change by the year. Support is only allowed at certain checkpoints, and then only within specified areas at those checkpoints. Normally only one dedicated crew member – specified and registered in advance with the organisers – is allowed in these areas to contact the runner.
This sounds tough, but in reality is very simple. As a runner you will find full and up to date rules and regs on the ‘Accompanying persons page’ within your ‘Personal page’ on the UTMB site, which you can find here. Read and digest this lot well before race day and all will be peaches and cream.
UTMB transport for crew and supporters
The UTMB organisers have made a massive effort to minimise the race’s impact on the region, and lay on one hell of a public transport service which supporters can register for in advance. It’s not perfect, but it’s bloody good and will get most supporters to most checkpoints, at most times. Again, prior planning is all.
If you can work out a rough pace chart and target your windows at your chose checkpoints, then full support – even if you don’t have your own car – is totally possible. Just don’t expect your crew to get much sleep either so remember to be nice to them.
UTMB aid stations - what to eat?
All will have water, orange slices, raisins, cake, bread and chocolate. Most will have hot bouillon (super salty soup, awesome for rehydration) and cola. While the bigger ones will have hot pasta, and a spread of cold cut meats and cheeses.
To help your planning, check the course map – it will always show the layout of the aid stations, as well as whether they have hot and/or cold food and/or drinks.
Should I sleep during the race?
Some aid stations have space for you to crash out (these will be marked with beds on the course map), with blankets and everything. While this will be highly attractive at 4am in a howling blizzard, think carefully. Any benefit from restorative kip has to be weighed against the mental interruption of stopping as well as the rigid-limbed difficulty of giving up a warm bed for a frosty mountain when you wake up later feeling like death warmed up.
But there's no getting away from the fact that completion at the UTMB is a mammoth undertaking and no strategy should be ruled out. If you’re execting to be out for two nights, and most finishers will, then throwing in a 20-minute power nap or two could be a total lifesaver.
We recommend 20 minutes as it’s the mimimum effective dose for real benefit (although you will feel awful when you wake up). If you are going for this, doing it at a checkpoint where your crew can wake you up is advised because there is a very good chance you’ll sleep through your alarm…
33Fuel’s top kit picks for the UTMB
When asked for their top ‘must-have’ UTMB pieces of kit, 33Fuel’s UTMB veterans came up with:
1 Brooks Cascadia: excellent all-round rockstar trail shoes, work wet or dry, ice or snow, flat or mountain, and road or trail. Just what the doctor ordered
2 North Face FL Race vest pack: spreads the load perfectly, tons of pockets where you need them and big enough for all you could need for the UTMB without overloading. Takes a water bladder too
3 Inov8 Race Elite Stormshell: light, waterproof and windproof this jacket is also cut slim for runners so plenty of room to move but no bulking or bagging around the edges
And of course...
4 33Shake Pre and Post Workout Shakes and Chia Energy gels: the world’s best sports nutrition, Shakes nail pre-race breakfast and post-race recovery while Gels are the ultimate long-haul fuel, specifically designed for stable energy with no stomach issues, no matter how far you’re going
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