The 2010 The North Face Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc is in the books. It took two starts, a couple dozen bus rides, and a few thousand text messages, but Jez Bragg and Lizzy Hawker are the new UTMB champions. Both are The North Face are runners from the UK, although Hawker currently resides in the Swiss Alps. This was Jez’s first big international win, while it marked Lizzy’s record third UTMB victory.
What follows is primarily an account of the Saturday’s revised UTMB. First, there’s a bit about the original UTMB race the was canceled Friday night, which is followed by an account of what transpired between the two versions of the race. Finally, we’ll let you know how the actual 2010 UTMB played out on the course. We’ve also included a collection of race reports, which we’ll update, at the end of the article. Grab an espresso… we downed more than one Nescafe espresso while writing this lengthy report.
One last thing before jumping in, be sure to stop back in the coming days for post-race video interviews with top UTMB finishers Lizzy Hawker, Jez Bragg, and Mike Wolfe!
The Back Story
In brief, this year’s UTMB started at 6:30 on Friday night in Chamonix, France, but this time under cloudy skies. Runners headed 5 miles south to Les Houches by which time it was pouring on the leaders. This wasn’t totally unexpected as there had been heavy rain in Chamonix earlier on Friday, but it was nonetheless disappointing as the skies had cleared in the afternoon.
The rain had mostly tapered off by the time the front runners made it to Saint-Gervais, a town 13 miles (21 km) into the race that greeted runners with a rocking street party. As had been the case at Les Houches, Salomon’s Kilian Jornet (iRF pre-race interview) led the men’s field along with Hoka OneOne runner Pascal Giguet, while Lizzy Hawker led the women. She entered the town with Scott Jurek (iRF pre-race interview) and Karl Meltzer in tow and only seven minutes behind Jornet. Geoff Roes of Montrail (iRF pre-race interview) and Mike Wolfe were the top Americans through Saint-Gervais. They were running together four and a half minutes behind the leaders.
And then is started raining again… or at least it started to rain on me again as I traveled to Les Contamines, 19 miles (31 km) into the course. It was then that I tweeted “Raining again in Les Contamines. It’s gonna be a long, cold, wet night!” With what soon transpired, I’m sure many runners (and myself) would have greatly preferred their Friday night to have been long and cold.
As it was, Kilian blasted in and out of Les Contamines alone in first. Miguel Heras and Pascal Giguet ran through a half minute behind in second and third. Then things got weird. Roes and Wolfe were the next ones out of the aid station. As I ran alongside them briefly, they reported that aid station workers had told them that the race was canceled and that they must stay in the aid station. However, as they knew the top three runners had left only minutes before, they pressed on.
Three hours into the race, the Americans were the last runners to leave Les Contamines. The race was indeed canceled, but no one in Les Contamines was certain of that for a good while. Instead, we stood there amidst puddles and rumors. Rumors of a temporary halt and restart, a resumption of the race at some later time, and a permanent cancellation. In fact, it was a good while before I was sure that the race was even temporarily halted. It took me seeing barriers placed at the aid station exit to confirm this.
Soon thereafter, I received a text message from Nick Yardley, the President of Julbo North America who was running the race, saying the race was canceled due to a mudslide. In the end, the threat of mudslides and falling rock was likely far outweighed by the risk of exposure to weather as runners in the CCC, a 98 km UTMB sister race started earlier on Friday, such as American Kami Semick noted that weather on the higher passes was quite dangerous. Although this is mere speculation, it would be hard to believe that the decision was not made with consideration for the exposure-related deaths of three adventure racers in the French Maritime Alps last year. I can understand both local and race officials would be unwilling to risk the lives of the 2,300 UTMB runners, the 1,200 runners of the TDS (the Sur les Traces des Ducs de Savoie, a 111 km UTMB sister race) who did not start as planned at midnight, or the portion of the 1,800 CCC runners who were pulled from later portions of the course.
Back in Les Contamines, the mood couldn’t have been more somber at the aid station. All the runners had spent many months training for this event. Many had traveled long distances and encountered great expense to be there. For some, it might be their only chance at glory. For others, it might be their only chance to attend the event. I hesitate to bring focus on one runner’s misfortune, but Tsuyoshi Kaburaki’s, a Japanese runner who placed second at the 2009 Western States 100, prolonged outpouring of emotion showed just how important this race is to the competitors. Likewise, the compassion expressed to him by his North Face teammate Sebastian Chaigneau showed the mutual respect, camaraderie, and understanding within the trail running community.
A Night of Confusion
Understanding was one thing that was lacking throughout the overnight hours Friday night. This was not a lack of understanding in the sense of compassion, but in the sense that no one knew what the heck was going on. At first, there was lots of talk of alternate plans. Nicolas Mermoud (iRF pre-race interview), the President of Hoka OneOne, had thoughts of running the TDS that was starting in 90 minutes in Courmayeur, which was 45 minutes away. Soon thereafter, Kilian convinced numerous top runners to enter the Skyrunning Marathon World Championships on Sunday in Italy. For more on the alternate race plan adventure, check out iRunFar’s UTMB cancellation post.
While out drinking consolation beverages with Nick Yardey, a fellow runner noticed Nick’s UTMB armband and said, “You’d better make that your last beer, we’re leaving for the race at 6:30 in the morning. The other runner proceeded to show a text saying that buses would leave at 6:30 am to take UTMB racers to Courmayeur to run the CCC course. It was then well passed 2 in the morning. Moments later, I received a call from Nicolas Mermoud, who told me the same story. I quickly finished my beer and went off to text and email the Americans whose contact info I had – Geoff Roes, Scott Jurek, and Scott Mason. Mason had heard nothing, but soon texted that he and Cory Johnson were in. Roes called sometime after 3:30 a.m. By that time, I’d read on The North Face’s European Blog that the official decision regarding the race would be made at 9 am. As this message was not yet contradicted on the race website, The North Face blog, or the Ultrafondus.net website (an official race partner), we decided to call one another at 8:30 to have breakfast before receiving the official announcement. At 8:25, I received a call from the press office letting me know that the press bus was leaving for Courmayeur at 9 for the restart of a revised UTMB at 10 a.m.
To be honest, I nearly stayed in bed. Then I realized that covering the race, whatever its form, was my reason for being in Chamonix. Each and every UTMB runner who received notice of the revised UTMB start before the final buses left for Courmayeur at 9 a.m. had to face a similar, but even more difficult decision. All had run 13 miles, 19 miles, or, in the case of the top five men, even more miles the previous night. Most had slept between two and four hours, if at all. Some had headed out drinking after Friday night’s cancellation. Few had eaten a meal since midday Friday. None had an easy choice. Each runner had his or her own reasons for being in Chamonix for UTMB and when combined with all of the difficult factors just described, there would be no way to predict who would or would not be on the starting line in Courmayeur for the revised UTMB.
Ultimately, many runners didn’t have a decision to make. The race relied on sending text messages to participants to notify them of the option of a revised start. In particular, we’re not aware of a single American who successfully received this text from the race organization. After the fact, the race organization became aware of this issue and found it important enough to address it in Sunday’s special UTMB Edition of Endurance Trail magazine. They noted, “Unfortunately, if we controlled the sending of the [text message], we did not control the reception of the messages, which depends on each operator. Which explains how certain athletes had either not received or received this message late…” They went on to explain why they used only text messages to notify runners of the resumption of UTMB, “In [case of emergency], [text] is the best way to get in touch quickly with all the runners as the mobile phone is part of their obligatory equipment.”
Even those who were in the know sometimes changed their minds. For instance, when first notified of the race around 7 Saturday morning, eventual winner Jez Bragg wasn’t on board with running the revised race. As the minutes ticked by and he learned of others who would be racing, he changed his mind. However, he didn’t make up his mind quite quickly enough to make the final bus without undue rush. At the time of his decision, I was writing iRunFar’s UTMB Resumption article in the lobby of the Hotel Alpina where The North Face athletes were also staying and gladly volunteered to drive Jez to the start given that I would be driving there to cover it anyway.
Heading to the start, I knew of a couple top runners who would be there, including Helen Cospolich (iRF pre-race interview), Mike Wolfe, Lizzy Hawker, Jez Bragg, Sebastien Chaigneau, Karl Meltzer, Nicolas Mermoud, Julien Chorier, Samuel Bonaudo, Fernanda Maciel, and Néré Martinez-Urruzola. I also knew that both reigning Western States 100 champions, Geoff Roes and Tracy Garneau, would not be restarting. As for the rest, it was anybody’s guess!
Revised Race Resumed
Seventeen hundred words into this article and its time to start talking about the actual UTMB. Given the adventure of this year’s race, the lengthy path to the start is entirely appropriate.
In turns out that Friday night’s UTMB runners would not be alone on their journey. The start of the TDS race, which was to have begun at midnight Saturday, was delayed overnight and its runners would join the original UTMB runners. Despite those who started UTMB Friday night having run up to 22 miles, both the UTMB and TDS entrants were now competing to be this year’s UTMB champion.
To see who would win UTMB, the racers would run a slightly modified CCC course, which normally measures 98 kilometers. I have not yet sorted out the details of the modification. The official race press release notes that the revised UTMB race distance was 88 kilometers, but relying on what I’ve been told by a runner quite familiar with both courses, I’ve calculated distance splits below based on approximately 4 kilometers (2 1/4 miles) being removed near the start at Courmayeur. Regardless of the changes, for 1,238 runners (650 UTMB/588 TDS), UTMB was on!
Amidst the spectacular scenery of Arnuva, Nepali Dawa Sherpa and Greek Alexis Gounko held a lead 14 miles (23 km) into the race. Julien Chorier (iRF pre-race interview) sat in third five and a half minutes back ahead of a cascade of runners. A minute behind Chorier, Mike Wolfe was the top American through Arnuva in sixth, while Karl Meltzer sat around 15th. In addition to Geoff Roes, it became apparent that neither Scott Jurek nor Joe Grant restarted the race. Lizzy Hawker ran among the top 20 men as she came into Arnuva. She was 16 minutes ahead of the next woman, Nérea Martinez-Urruzola, and more than half an hour ahead of Agnes Herve in third.
Three miles later, Gounko briefly took a small lead over Dawa Sherpa at the Col de Ferret. Dawa had caught back up to the Greek by La Fouly at mile 23 (37 km). Three Frenchmen, Julien Chorier, Cyril Cointre and Jérome Challier, were the next runners giving chase. Gounko would later drop from the race. Lizzy remained far in front of the other ladies.
By Bovine at mile 38 (62 km), Jez Bragg and Mike Wolfe had paired up and were charging hard in third position. Dawa Sherpa had retaken the lead en route to the aid station with Chorier just two minutes back. Dawa, however, had spent himself. In the next four miles heading to Trient, he gave up the lead, four positions, and eight minutes on the new leaders, Chorier and Bragg. Wolfe and Thomas Saint-Girons came through four minutes off the lead. Hawker continued to dominate the women’s field.
Jez Bragg took over the lead to Vallorcine, 48 miles (77 km) in to this year’s UTMB. There, ahead of the last major climb of 2,500 feet, he had a four minute lead on Wolfe, his teammate and partner earlier in the race. Chorier had quickly fallen 7 minutes behind Bragg.
Wolfe did not have any oomph in his legs on the four mile climb to la Tête aux Vents during which time Bragg doubled his lead. Spaniard Zigor Iturrieta passed Chorier to move into third.
The order did not change on the swift 3,600 foot descent into Chamonix. Jez Bragg won in 10:30, Mike Wolfe was second in 10:37, and Zigor Iturrieta finished third in 10:49. Julien Chorier hung on for fourth in 10:53. After two starts and 75 miles (125 km) of racing, Patrick Bohard, Antoine Guillon, Jérôme Challier, Cyril Cointre, and Thomas Saint-Girons crossed the line arm-in-arm for a five way tie for fifth in 10:56. Pascal Blanc rounded out the top 10 in 11:09. Local favorite Dawa Sherpa and the first Japanese runner, Kenichi Yamamoto, tied for 11th in 11:14. Karl Meltzer was the second American across the line in 11:40, which earned him 17th place.
Full open (“Scratch”) results, including women, can found here. You can also separate search for women’s rankings (“Femmes”) on the same page.
I apologize for not giving more play-by-play commentary to Lizzy Hawker’s tremendous victory. She was smoking the women’s field on Friday evening and again dominated on Saturday. In four UTMB starts (or five counting this year’s double start), she has three victories (’05, ’08, ’10) and one second (’09). No one has dominated the race like she has, although with Friday night’s performance it seems like Kilian Jornet is not far from being in her company. It’s clear that only a few women in the world, such as last year’s UTMB champ Krissy Moehl, can even compete with Hawker on the UTMB course.
By the time Hawker reentered Chamonix, she had more than an hour’s lead as she won in 11:47. Néré Martinez-Urruzola was the second woman to finish in 12:49. Martinez-Urruzola again had more than an hour’s lead on the next woman, Agnès Hervé, who ran 14:11. Fernanda Maciel took fourth in 14:33 not too far fifth place Catherine Dubois, who finished in 14:40. Isabelle Ciferman earned sixth with a time of 14:52. Helen Cospolich was the top American woman. She finish seventh in 14:54. Chigaya Mase, the top Japanese woman, took eighth in 15:03. Rounding out the top ten were Claudine Trecourt (15:07) and Hiroko Suzuki (15:16).
By the time the 27 hour time limit was reached, 1,128 finishers had finished this year’s Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc. For sure, it was an unforgettable two days for all of the finishers, all of the runners who never made the line, as well as everyone in attendance. While this lengthy article has covered the competitive aspect of the event and the realities (and rumors) forced upon all by the inclement weather, I intend to later share more on the feel and experience at this unbelievable event. To be sure, it’s unlikely that there’s anything like it in the United States… or quite possibly anywhere else in the world.
- Geoff Roes offers four relevant posts: Almost, But Not Quite…, And Then Almost Again, and UTMB Final Thoughts
- Karl Meltzer’s UTMB report
- Kilian Jornet’s thoughts on UTMB’s annulment (in French) (Google translated into English)