UTMB race report
In 2009 33Fuel co-founder Warren gained a last-minute place at the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB). Having finished the Marathon des Sables earlier the same year, he thought he was in with a shot at finishing. The UTMB however had other ideas, and taught him a long and painful lesson in suffering and humility. You can read all about just how that turned out from his UTMB race report below.
But the experience didn't put him off. Quite the opposite - the race has been his obsession ever since. With a finish at the shorter CCC in 2011, he finished the UTMB itself in 2012.
UTMB race report: the build up
The organisers send out plenty of handy information to runners before the UTMB, including this gem:
"Don’t forget – it’s hard!
"The regulations are specific in all imaginable dimensions: mountain ultra-trails are difficult races. You must be fully aware of the difficulties of the event before leaving, to be autonomous, to know how to manage difficult climatic conditions, not to cry if you fall, and to understand it is not the role of the organisation to treat muscular pain, digestive problems and other aches. This is ‘adventure’.
"At the end of August, the temperature can drop to -10°C, snow or hail can fall abundantly, and one can get lost in fog despite comparatively com-prehensive way-markers. And it can also reach more than 30°C. This is not an organized outing but a race... We have therefore to concentrate our efforts on quality assistance. Comfort-care will be reduced.
"No more physios and of chiropodists to pamper you, but assistance and medical care to take charge of racers presenting a serious problem."
UTMB race report: Thursday - one day to go
Approaching Chamonix it becomes clear what we’re in for. These are not hills, they are very much mountains. Massive, rough, solid hewn gargantuan lumps of rock which are not to be f*cked with. Walking around Chamonix deep in the shadow of Mont Blanc I feel both small and insignificant.
On the hotel balcony with night fallen I can still make out the sullen outlines of those high escarpments towering all around and am painfully aware that this time tomorrow night I will be among them finding out what I’m really made of.
The population here are tanned, hugely fit and lean as hell. Age is no boundary – everyone looks as fit as fleas.
But as soon as that clock starts, we will all be weighed, measured and stripped to our true value by this course. All the training, posturing, kit and appearances in the world will count for nothing out there tomorrow night. Rich, poor, old, young, fit or fitter, we will all be equal in the mountains.
UTMB race report: Friday am - race day morning
We runners are easy to spot now. All pacing, wandering about clutching red drop bags like the athletic homeless, looking at the mountains, trying to relax but failing, eating anything we can see. The supermarket has been drained of water and bananas.
Not everyone is like this though. I meet some of the top players including Sebastien Chaigneau and Lizzy Hawker and they are all utterly calm. I'm far from it, and haven’t got anywhere near their spiritual nirvana where mind, body and trail are one.
For the top players, they are the mountains and the mountains are them. For the rest of us it’s a voyage into the unknown.
UTMB race report: Friday evening, Chamonix, five minutes to go!
Madness. 2,300 runners crammed into the centre of Chamonix. Most of the town is out in support, surrounded by mountains. Runners seem very calm on the whole, many sitting down as the last ten minutes. As the UTMB theme is played ('Conquest of Paradise'), it's stirring and uplifting as we wait in this modern day gladiatorial arena. Here in this crowded start pen it is almost eerie. Hairs stand up on the back of my neck.
UTMB race report: race start: gooo!
Running out of Chamonix it’s that rammed we can’t run, it’s a walk only. It’s hot too as the crowd of roasting runners hemmed in by equally warm spectators raises the temperature. Cheering everywhere, a sea of bodies surging out into the mountains.
Let the madness begin. 2,300 runners leave the startline. 46 hours later fewer than 50% will be able to call themselves finishers
Entering Les Houches, 8km run
Here the mood is one of universal happiness and wellbeing, car horns hooting, people waving and cheering. 'Allez!' And 'Courage!' are the favourites.
I’m amazed at the pace. People are ripping by while I’m averaging 8kmh but want to be averaging 5kmh. They're hacking by like it’s a 10k, feverishly trying to make every last place. Either I’m in a race with a lot of supermen or I’m going to be seeing a lot of those same people later… This is unknown territory.
Best character I have seen so far is a guy who looked like Kurtz out of Apocalypse Now. Going slower than most, calm, stoic, unstoppable. He’s the one I want as a role model. Not the fast ones, who hare past only to appear at the trail side minutes later waiting for a friend, taking a leak, etc.
Saint Gervais, 21km run
Feeling strong as I bound down the town steps into the centre. The place is going off!
Bit of chicken noodle soup, bread, bit of plain water and I’m feeling good. The atmosphere here is rocking. It makes you feel like this is the most heroic thing you have ever done. Although after this it’s straight back out into the blackness, the loneliness, and the grind – it’s another 10km straight up before I see any more encouraging faces or any more hot food.
String these checkpoints together, piece by piece. It's amazing what they can do for you. This is all mental. Half a pint of chicken soup and a bit of bread isn’t really going to change much, but the mental lift it gave me is immense. This really is a mental race, in both senses of the word.
Les Contamines, 23:49 Friday, 31km run
Bit of a low. It’s like something out of King Solomon’s mines watching the lines of headtorches silently winding their way up the black forested wooded mountainside above me.
Standing at the roadside shouting ‘courage!', 'allez!’ is clearly a French national pastime.
Coming into Les Contamines I can feed off the light and energy here, much in the same way I can feed off people who are already doubled up and vomiting at the side of the trail. Psychologically, when you see someone else break it gives you a lift. Evil, but true. Of course, that may be me later on though...
This is all you'll see at night. A trail of headtorches in the blackness. Hypnotic, eerie and dangerously addictive all at once, an all-nighter in the mountains is always an unforgettable experience
Have had some soup, topped up water. Feeling strong. But the 1,000 yard stares are beginning. One bloke was fast asleep on the floor, headtorch still on. He’s going to wake up very cold, very stiff. Couple of other people sat there, plainly broken, family around them not really sure what to do. Only a handful at the moment, but there are a lot more to come.
Climbing Col du Bonhomme, 01:00 Sat, 36km run
My god, I can see in the shadows a giant peak ahead. No doubt that's where we’re going. Just walked past a pub halfway up this monstrous hill, everyone well on their way. All cheering, singing, oompa music, boozy waft. But would I want to be in the pub with them? No. I’ve done enough years of that. I would rather be out here doing something very different. Odd though it may seem to some. This sport offers a very simple and inexpensive route to something very different, something incredible even, something most people will never manage or even understand.
Still climbing Col du Bonhomme, 02:10 Sat, 40km run
I would stop and admire the view, but I am in a total pea-souper of a fog. But it’s not fog. It’s a cloud. I am in a cloud. In the pitch black. At 2am on a Saturday morning. I can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing. Biggest thing about this is the plain unknown of it all… This is a quarter of the way in. Four times this? I don't want to think about it.
Now heading uphill again – final push to summit of Col du Bonhomme. The uphill is brutal, heartbraking. Thank heavens for my walking poles. Without those I wouldn't have even made it this far.
Getting deeper into the cloud. Visibility basically zero. Conveniently this part of the course is also littered with holes, rivers to fall into and narrow wonky bridges to topple off.
On the summit of Col du Bonhomme, 03:40, Saturday, 42.5km run
Excellent. I've now run a nine-hour marathon. What a ballbreaker. Endless false summits. And the ground. Rocks, mud, scree, ledges, rivers, mountaineering in places. But I’m on my way down the other side now.
It's an easy single-lap course. Just 103 miles, 9,800 vertical metres, all self-sufficient, in snow, rain, and with a night or two without sleep...
Leaving Les Chapieux checkpoint, 05:10, Saturday, 50km run
Still getting the clapping from bystanders along the trail. Amazing. Don't these people have homes to go to? It is freezing. The wind is biting, especially having stopped for 15 mins to get some food on. The descents cool you down anyway, then stopping finishes the job. This is the checkpoint where I sit down. See a bloke next to me syringing iodine into his blisters. The silent scream from him as it hits home brings back memories of the MDS – I know the same fate could be waiting for me at halfway. Fill the water bottle. Fill water bladder. Chuck my rubbish. Drink hot soup. Eat bread. Leave. This has become my checkpoint routine.
Other than being cold feel okay. Bent my walking poles on the way down – they're lightweight and while great for climbing help they'll bend like straws if you put real weight through them. I got carried away descending and fell right on my ego as the wet grass saw me off. Then had to spend five mins at the trail side bending poles straight...
Also lost them earlier when stopped to dig out headtorch and left them behind. Got down a way, then realised they were behind. Had to climb back up scanning the trail side. Was bloody lucky to find them as it all looked the same by then in the pitch black.
I know my 10am target in Courmayeur is not going to happen now. Decide 12 is the next best thing.
Have a brain fade shortly after this. As the light comes up, I can’t remember where I am. Is it the Lake District? Snowdon? Where? Takes a while to remember.
Leaving Lac Combal, Sat, 84km run
Courmayeur and the halfway point is 13km away. Basically that's one lap of Richmond Park. I would normally see that off in 55 minutes but that’s a long way off now. Last stage was awful. Monster climb. Not as bad as Bonhomme, but I was in a much worse way. Average HR plummeting, running out of energy, but every time I try to eat it makes me want to puke.
[Editor's note: this was 2009, pre-33Fuel and Warren was still trying to run on regular sports nutrition - repeated gagging on gels and bars here began sparking the question: 'isn't there a better alternative'. The quest for this answer would start the journey that became 33Fuel]
Ate what I could, then dry retched right the way up the climb (from Les Chapieux to Col de La Seigne – 1,000m up). Fortunately the summit was in cloud, which means you have no idea how much further up you are going.
On the way down, my quads! The punishment is really starting to hit home. Also I am now really mincing on the descents. But then everyone is. Anywhere else it would look ridiculous. Here, no one could care less as long as they're still moving.
Cracks in my armour are now gaping holes, but whatever happens, I’m making Courmayeur.
The descent from Col de la Seigne is where I first realise I may not finish.
Listen to your body, the pros say. So I listened to mine at the Lac Combal checkpoint. It told me it wanted coffee, and cake. So I gave it that. Then promptly felt like being sick five minutes later. My body is clearly lying to me, or more likely, I'm just not tuned into it well enough.
Dawn breaks, as it dawns on Warren that he too is broken. No UTMB finish for him in 2009The descent to Courmayeur, 75km run
This is going to be where my race ends. My quads are almost incapable of going downhill anymore. I can manage another uphill but the only way back down after that would be to roll down. Morale has vanished. Watching others spring down this same slope that is killing me is a total morale breaker. I have no idea where they are getting the strength.
I’m 14 hours in. Can I do the same again and then some? No way.
It’s a steep as hell descent from Col Checrouit 800m down into Courmayeur. Glimpsing the town it looks like something out of a Disney movie nestled beneath the hills. And with every pace, it doesn’t seem to get any closer.
I am broken. It’s been a tough decision to make to quit, a finish would have been the biggest achievement of my life, but pushing on requires strength I no longer have. I almost don’t want to finish this descent because it means admitting I’m pulling out.
My pace now is shambling. Dreadful, horrific. Most people passing me barge past like I’m an obstacle. Weak. Irrelevant. Ties in with the way no one speaks much. Everyone is too tired.
I bail, have my runner's wristband cut, and am immediately flooded with elated relief and miserable disappointment all at once.
UTMB race report: DNF, back in Chamonix, Sunday morning
I have now had a night’s sleep and a feed. I can barely walk. But I’m glad I pulled out. I now know this was well beyond me - my healthy MDS finish just a few months previous now resembles a fun run by comparison.
I kept hearing applause through the night, got up this morning just in time to see Sebastien Chaigneau finish. He looked like he’d just been for a jog in the park, albeit with more sunken eyes.
Walking out of the hotel, someone mistakes me for a finished runner as I hobble into the street and they clap. I feel like a fraud.
La Flegere, 1030, Sunday, 8km from the finish
I've driven up here to check out the race. Runners are still pouring through this checkpoint. I am in awe. Most are still running. They haven’t slept since Thursday night. Some are people I saw in Courmayeur at the same time I pulled out.
These are just regular people. Not pro athletes, not superhuman, they have dedicated themselves to this. I realise now what an amazing tonic a night’s sleep and a hot meal will do for you. On a multi-day stage race you cannot underestimate the value of a hot meal and a few hours of even the crappiest kip. It allows your body to recover from so much.
The sheer bloody attrition of the non-stop nature of this race and the havoc that wreaks on your body is savage beyond anything I know.
But my horror feelings of never doing anything like this again are already fading. Kit and body stood up well, apart from the quads. More mountain training and I could be here next year...
Finish line, Chamonix, 16:20, Sunday
Finisher's reactions are great. They come in, look spaced out to finish, not sure what to do, get number taken off, tag snipped, finisher's jacket given out, and then they’re out the other side and back into the real world with a bang. It's over.
Some cry, some slump on family shoulders, some pass out while others hobble for the nearest bar. The crowd is booming, the music bombastic, the cheering never stops. It’s bloody incredible.
It’s the opposite of a normal marathon. Everyone here has now packed the area and is waiting for the LAST person.
Jean Marie Bourgeois (no 2084) is last in. And is whisked straight onto the stage. He will share it with the winners and local dignitaries and is as feted as the rest. He looks dazed, shattered, but also has a smile a mile wide and tears in his eyes. 46 hours in the mountains, no sleep, just sheer bloody minded human determination.
I asked him as he climbed down if he would be back next year, to which he replied mischieviously, "well I have qualifying points…"
Then he’s mobbed. People want their photo with him, to shake his hand, even though he stinks to high heaven.
The next day
Where Chamonix was full of superfit superheroes before this race, it is now full of battered, grizzled, limping wrecks. Creaking bodies. All wearing finisher’s fleeces despite it being scorchingly hot. Many are sweating profusely but no one who earned one is taking theirs off.
I vow there and then to come back and claim one*.
(*which he did a couple of years later)
Related content The Ultimate UTMB Guide