Exciting UTMB Cancelled… or Not?

We’re afraid all the news that we have regarding the UTMB right now is quite cloudy. First, as you may know (if you follow iRunFar on Twitter), it’s rained on and off in Chamonix the past day, sometimes quite heavily. As a result, a combination of mudslides at Col de la Seigne and inclement weather forced race officials to cancel the race three hours into the event. (Not many trail runners outside of Europe may know it, but three runners died of hypothermia at the Raid du Mercantour adventure race in the French Alps last year.) Second, as of eight hours after the cancellation, there have been more rumors than substance regarding possible replacement events. Below we discuss the race, the cancellation, and the contingency plans.

The Race…
Ok, back to the beginning of the story. The race start was as emotional as they get. The UTMB folks really know how to set a mood. Such attempts are uncommon in American trail races. Those races we’ve seen attempt it around the world have fallen short of UTMB’s standard. Sure, that might not be everyone’s thing, but it’s something to experience at least once.

After the runners hit the course, the rains started. The top runners arrival at the first aid station, Les Houches (4.9 miles/7.9 km), coincided with heavens opening up. Fortunately, it wasn’t all that cold. As might be expected, Kilian Jornet was out in the lead, but the top ten men were all still within a few minutes. Lizzy Hawker was the only woman we saw come through.

The town of Saint Gervais hosts UTMB’s third aid station at mile 13.2/km 21.3. It was rocking! We saw a brass band working the crowd, which entered into song whenever the band stopped playing. All the runners we’ve talked to love about it, love running through the town for what felt like a mile, as the course runs an out and back to the aid station at the heart of town.

The lead runners hit Saint Gervais during a break in the rain. Again, Kilian was in the lead, this time in the company of Pascal Giguet. Miguel Heras and Nicolas Mermoud were but a minute back. Mike Wolfe and Geoff Roes were the top Americans through the aid station five minutes back in sixth and seventh.

Lizzy Hawker was smoking. She came into the town with Scott Jurek and Karl Meltzer in toe. The next woman, Nérea Martinez-Urruzola didn’t come in for another for another 12 minutes. Tracy Garneau, another minute back, was the only other woman within 20 minutes of Lizzy.

Ah, and then there was Les Contamines at mile 19.3/km 31.1. Kilian yet again ran through the aid station in first, though Miguel and Pascal were hanging tight. The pair were 30 and 40 seconds back, respectively. Five minutes back, Geoff Roes and Mike Wolfe came out of the aid station together in fourth and fifth. This were things get odd.

The Cancellation
We briefly followed Geoff and Mike as they exited the aid station. They first noted that some runners seemed to have gotten lost…. no big deal that happens. Then they dropped the curious bombshell, some person or persons in the aid station told them that the race was temporarily canceled and that they needed to stay in the aid station. Not seeing Kilian, Miguel, or Pascal still in the aid station, they decided to keep going unless someone blocked their way. No one did and they kept on running. They were the final runners to leave the aid station.

No one left the aid station for a bit and that got us poking around. The first rumors were of a temporary cancellation. As more elite runners came in without any exiting, the rumors turned to total cancellation or possibly a resumption of the race further down the course past the mudslide at Col de la Seigne.

Some runners changed into dry clothes or ate up while others walked around in disbelief. More than a few became emotional. They’d spent six months or a year training all leading up to this day… and a decision that was not theirs ended it. That is not at all to imply that anyone was upset with the race organizers for doing so. We did not here a single runner say so much. All respected that safety is paramount and that no race directors wish to unnecessarily cancel a race. Those directors likely work longer and harder on the event than the runners.

Sebastien Chaigneau Tsuyoshi Kaburaki UTMB 2010

Sebastien Chaigneau consoling Tsuyoshi Kaburaki after the cancellation of the 2010 UTMB.

Eventually, the 50-100 runners that reached Les Contamines found rides back to Chamonix or otherwise wandered off more or less as they pleased. There was enough space for all. On the other hand, there were 2,200 or so runners that never made it past Saint Gervais. The final result was runners packing like sardines into trains that run from Saint Gervais to Chamonix.

The Night of Many Contingency Plans
While in Les Contamines, Hoka OneOne president Nicolas Mermoud quickly came up with driving to the TDS (Traces des Ducs de Savoie), a UTMB sister race, that started in 90 minutes at Courmayeur, which is 45 minutes away through the Mont Blanc tunnel. He had a few convinced a few to follow along with his plan… until Kilian started recruiting folks to run the Sky Running Marathon World Championships in Italy on Sunday. Kilian quickly convinced Nicholas and Geoff to run in Italy, as well.

Not long thereafter, we found ourselves at Nicolas’s house, as he lives in Les Contamines, in the company of Kilian Jornet, Geoff Roes, Karl Meltzer, some friends, including some of the Salomon coverage crew. It wasn’t long until Geoff had convinced Karl to run the marathon. Meanwhile, Kilian had convinced World Trail Running champion Thomas Lorblanchet to come, as well. After a quick phone call by Kilian, the runners were into the Sky Race!

Karl Meltzer Geoff Roes Kilian Jornet Nicolas Mermoud UTMB 2010

(l-r) Karl Meltzer, Geoff Roes, Kilian Jornet, & Nicolas Mermoud after the 2010 UTMB.

After some pasta and good times, the group dispersed a bit after midnight. Once back in Chamonix it was time for a beer. Out at the bar, a runner received a text from the race organization… a replacement CCC (98 km UTMB sister race) was being held the next morning, just be on the bus at 6:30 am! We received a completely independent phone call from a reliable source telling us the same news. We believed it. In addition, it turns out that unbeknown to us, there’d also been a UTMB press conference saying that the organization was looking into start an event at Courmayeur, CCC’s starting point, and that an official announcement would be made in an hour or two.

That hour or two passed and a decision was made: No decision would be announced until 9 am local time. Per The North Face, at that time the race organizers “will inform runners if there is a chance to continue the race.”

The Conclusion?
We know that many UTMB runners never got the first text message regarding the CCC replacement race. We also suspect that most were asleep when the announcement of the 9 am final announcement was made. We don’t know what the final decision will be, how many runners will learn about it (many will welcome a long night’s sleep), and how many will choose to take part in a replacement option.

Anyway, stay tuned. If there’s a replacement race, we’ll certainly mention it on Twitter, but might not have time to update the website.

Call for Comments
How would you feel about such a cancellation? What would you want to be the solution? Might you take part in a replacement race?

There are 7 comments

  1. Paul

    My heart really goes out to all the runners who have trained so hard for this race and travelled from all around the world to be there. Of course you can't argue with the decision – safety must come first.

    I've seen your tweet saying that the replacement CCC is on. I think this is a good alternative. Whilst it's not the UTMB it will at least offer runners a chance to see some of the course.

    I think the organiser's should also offer all competitors preferential entry into the 2011 race, or perhaps one UTMB of their choice over the next 2 or 3 years (not everybody maybe be able to afford another trip for next year).

    None of these are ideal solutions, but there really isn't an ideal solution available.

    Whatever happens I hope everybody out there makes the most of spending some time in such a beautiful area of the world.

  2. kyle

    Wow…what a turn of events and thanks, for your coverage Byron.

    First, you have to look out for the runners safety, and thankfully it seems as it they have.

    Second, I think you should give RD the nod in this one and run whatever replacement even he/she comes up with. Just my 2 cents….

  3. Greg Waite

    Sad as it is for participants, tThere is a lot to learn for runners and race organisers here. Its worried me for some time that with the rise and rise of adventure racing, a lot of people don't have the survival skills or awareness to be safe. Of course some of these races are expensive and offer great support, but that also makes it easy for people to lose touch with the real risks involved. All credit to the organisers for managing to organise an alternative, glad it wasn't me, just imagining the losistics is scary. I see even before this they'd had to helicopter (!) additional course marking due to idiots removing it…

    Here is a write-up of another high-profile cancellation, where similiar issues were raised: http://runtrails.org/articles/?p=810

    Lets all learn from this, that's what we're out there for. Take for example Bill Thompson, a local who's been over there for three weeks camping in the mountains (in a $40 tent!) in the lead-up. (A) he hasn't missed too much through the cancellation, since he's had a great time in the region acclimasing – as you should! and (B) he got the text message and made it to the substitute event. Turns out there was a point to carrying those damn cellphones after all, even if the idea still irks me ;-)

  4. Guy

    Byron, thanks for a great summary. Just back from Chamonix having made the second start of the UTMB. Very disappointed after months of preparation and expense. I was staggered by how little equipment people were carrying, specifically having been told what the weather conditions were going to be. Frankly, if you go into the mountains you need to be prepared to survive, not to rely on the race organisers. I still can't quite understand why they even started, why not delay to the following monring?

    1. Bryon Powell

      Guy,

      Total (ok, almost total) speculation here, but (1) can you imagine the riot if folks at the line were told of cancellation and (2) the communes along the way approve the passage months in advance for passage at a certain time. There's little chance that they could or would have approved passage so fast. The runner restarted in Courmayeur with reasonable proximity to the planned race passage. Even then, the Italians likely had a big say in the 1,5000 restart limit.

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