As this article goes up, the iRunFar team is on its way to cover the 2011 The North Face Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc. (Well, I’m running it, too.) I know it’s overused, but this very well might be the most competitive 100 mile race in history.
Let’s start with one hell of a rematch – everyone the top five at this year’s Western States will toe the line in Chamonix on Friday. That includes, Kilian Jornet, Mike Wolfe, Nick Clark, Jez Bragg, and Tsuyoshi Kaburaki. To that you can add 2010 Western States champ Geoff Roes, 2010 The North Face Endurance Challenge champ Miguel Heras, 2011 Hardrock 100 second place finisher Dakota Jones, two-time Western States champ Hal Koerner, SEVEN-time Western States champ Scott Jurek, as well as a slew of top Europeans and Asians.
As with all races, not all who entered with be out there on race day. On the American side, the no shows include Anton Krupicka (recovering from a broken leg), Karl Meltzer (back injury), and Dave Mackey (scheduling conflict). I’m sure there are similar withdrawals from the overseas crowd.
To get a taste of race day action, we’ve caught up with four guys who know how to step it up when they hit the ultra world’s biggest stages. Below are interviews with endurance aficionados Kilian Jornet, Geoff Roes, Jez Bragg, Nick Clark, and Mike Wolfe.
Bonus Suunto Contest! [CLOSED]
Have we got a contest for you! We’ll be giving away a Suunto M5 Running Kit to the person who most closely predicts the overall winning time of the 2011 The North Face Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc without going over the winning time.
(Price Is Right rule, Americans) Hours and minutes ONLY. Add your pick for which runner will win, as that will be the first tie breaker. If there’s still a tie after that, the prize goes to the first person to post a particular time and winner. (In other words, the first correct time and winner prediction gets priority over later entries with the same time.) To enter, just leave a comment below (no emails please!) prior to the start of the race. The Suunto prize pack is only available to US residents (I tried, folks!), but if someone outside the States wins, we’ll be sure to hook them up, too!
Benjamin won this contest by guessing the closest to Kilian’s winning time of 20:36 without going over with a prediction of 20:33. A few others guessed the same time, but Benjamin was the only one of those to correctly choose Kilian Jornet as the winner.
Kilian Jornet: I did a lot of training in July and August while resting in my home. I did mix in some training races: 4 vertical Kilometers in Manigod in France and 46k in Font Romeu as well as two important races: Giir di Mont (32k) in Italy and Sierre Zinal (31k) in Switzerland. Good feelings and good results with very difficult races against Marco de Gasperi!
iRF: You’re active on Twitter, posting a lot about how happy you’ve been out training in the European mountains. How has nature fueled your training this summer? What mountains have you enjoyed training in?
Jornet: Not just in European mountains, but in all mountains! In July and August I rested in my home and trained around Chamonix with climbs of Buet, Houches, and Mt Blanc. After UTMB, it’s time to traveling and discovering new mountains in South Africa, Peru, Malasia…
iRF: You’ve raced some shorter, European races since Western States, including the 31 kilometer Sierre-Zinal last weekend. Have you been using these races as training races for UTMB or have you been peaking for each race? How did Sierre-Zinal go for you last weekend? The results show us that you placed third, but that you ran more than three minutes faster than in 2010? Can you tell us about how your race went?
Jornet: No, for me these shorter races are a principal objective. For me, the most difficult races in summer are Giir di Mont and Sierre Zinal. For long distance races it’s not important to arrive in the best moment, just don’t have problems.
Short races are more difficult to training. I start training for UTMB the Monday after Sierre Zinal. Before that, I don’t think about UTMB. I’m very happy with my feelings in these short races. In Giir di Mont, I felt really good and I won 2 minutes ahead of Marco de Gasperi and the same in the Vertical Km in Manigod finishing 1 minute before Marco. In Sierre Zinal, I feel hard legs. All days don’t go perfectly, but I’m very happy with my time(!) and Cesar and Marco, this day, run really very very strong!!
iRF: In the time between now and UTMB, what kind of training are you doing? Are you tapering? What does tapering look like for you?
iRunFar: You DNF’ed at the Western States 100 in late June. You told iRunFar after the race that you were feeling poor from the start. Since then, how has training and racing gone for you overall? Do you feel like your body has come back around since that day?
Geoff Roes: I recovered really quickly from my 55 mile effort at Western States. By four days after the race I felt great, but that only lasted for a few days and then I felt pretty tired again for several weeks. I needed to take a lot of time off to recover from runs that I can usually recover from “on the run.” I was getting some great training in all summer, but I was needing to take one or two days off every week to recover from the longer runs. Finally, about two weeks ago now, this all turned around. I think I did a good job of giving my body the rest it needed and finally it came around and I feel really great about where I’m at now.
iRF: You once again won the Crow Pass Crossing, a 24-mile Alaskan wilderness race in July. How did that race go for you?
Roes: Crow Pass was a really fun and satisfying race. I felt relatively good on race day but like most of my longer runs this summer it took quite awhile to recover from it. I got some confidence back (that I may have lost at WS) from having such a good race, but then I lost most of that in the week or two after the race. Now, with how good I’ve felt for the past two weeks, I finally feel like I have all the confidence back that will be needed to tackle something like UTMB.
iRF: You’ve been training in Alaska for most of the summer, though your blog notes you’ve been back in Boulder for several days. You always speak so highly of the running you do in Alaska. Do you think a summer of that has prepared you well for racing UTMB? If so, how?
Roes: Yeah, I think the training I do in Alaska is great for UTMB. There’s tons of rugged vertical in all of the running I do up there and being at low altitude and cool climate I’m able to push my body much harder than I’m able to in the high altitude, dry climate of Colorado. I don’t think the altitude is enough of a factor at UTMB to be too worried about training mostly below 5,000 feet. I think altitude training is great (and pretty much necessary) if you are going to be doing races where you are above 8,000 ft. for long durations of time, but in a race like UTMB where you are only ever that high up for short stretches, I think you are better off training lower down where you can push your body a little harder without it being too much stress due to the lack of oxygen.
iRF: In your most recent blog post, you say that your body is feeling really good. Can you share with us a few details about that? Is it just a feeling? Have certain runs given you that feeling?
Roes: Yeah, it’s really just a feeling that I get when I feel like I’m really tuned into my body and my body responds to runs in the way that I expect it to. I don’t mind feeling really weak and tired out if I have been doing things which specifically account for this feeling. Most of this summer my body was not responding to activity the way I’m used to. I think I finally gave it enough active rest period and it came around just in time. The ironic thing is that when this finally manifested itself was in the last few hours of an 11 hour run almost two weeks ago now. I finished that run feeling more connected to my body than I had in a long time. I can’t even explain it, but at about 8 or 9 hours of that I run things just started to feel “right” and they’ve pretty much felt that way ever since.
iRunFar: We last saw you at the Western States 100 in June, where you ran to 4th place and a blazing sub-16 hour finish. How has your summer of recovery and then training been since then? Did you bounce back pretty quickly or take a nice break?
Jez Bragg: The recovery – train – taper phase between Western States and UTMB has been a bit blurred to say the least. I recovered pretty quickly from Western States so I really just threw myself straight into UTMB-specific stuff without too much of a break. I did quite a bit of road cycling and swimming to supplement the running early in the summer, which I always find works well to spin the muscle soreness away. With only 9 weeks between the two races it’s not a lot of time, but I’ve done all I can and I’m definitely feeling ready to go. My real focus has been on building leg strength. I know I can run 100 miles pretty quick, but there are obviously a few lumps and blumps along the way at UTMB, so plenty of long days going up and down the mountains has been top of the agenda.
iRF: It looks like you spent some time training in the Alps during July. Did you train on the course or on similar terrain? How did that go for you? Are you feeling like you’ve been able to train to your potential?
Bragg: I’ve spent quite a bit of time in the mountains over the summer – several days in the Lake District (North West England), a couple of weeks in the Alps and a few days in Snowdonia (North Wales) too. The Alps training was brilliant. I fastpacked the ‘Walkers’ Haute Route’, a high level route between Chamonix and Zermatt, then did a 3-day training weekend with The North Face Team covering the full UTMB route, as well a load of other single training days. As a whole, it’s all gone really well and should pay dividends in the race. It’s a difficult balance to strike with UTMB training. It’s obviously a super hard race so it follows that the training needs to be pretty hardcore too, but it’s so easy to over step the mark and completely trash your legs before you even start. With a bit of luck I’ve got it about right. We’ll soon find out….
iRF: You’re UTMB’s defending champion. What’s it like returning to the race in this way? Are you going back this year to defend your title or to run your own race? Or, do those two goal equate to each other for you?
Bragg: A bit different! Last year was a strange one. It was a great experience which gave me a taste of winning a big race, but it wasn’t the real UTMB race. I’m looking forward to running the full distance and seeing what happens. I will always run my own race and that definitely won’t change just because I’m wearing race number one. I know how to bring out the best in myself and that’s not necessarily battling it out at the front from mile one. It’s a long race and a lot can (and will happen). It’s gonna be very, very interesting.
iRF: One thing we’ve noticed about you is the joy you seem to derive from running in wild places. Is the scenery of the UTMB course at all motivating to you?
Bragg: I love nothing more than running solo in a super remote places. The UTMB course is very inspiring for me. Every time I go round, and I think it’s over ten times now, I’m just in awe of the incredible views – it certainly never gets boring. UTMB is very special race and the biggest reason for that is the beauty of the course and surroundings. When you’re feeling super tired and overwhelmed by the challenge, you just need to catch a glimpse of Mont Blanc or one of the other mountains to draw some extra strength to keep you going.
iRF: The UTMB men’s roster has some serious talent on it. With whom are you looking forward to spending some time out on the course? Who are your top five picks for the men?
Bragg: It’s certainly going to be a great race for the spectator. I enjoyed running with Mike Wolfe last year. We’re very similar in ability and we seemed to spur each other on a lot, so hopefully we will be get chance to run together again. Other than that, any english speaker will do! We all know how friendly the ultra community is, even amongst the elites, so it would be great to get to know some new people through running together out on the course – what better way to get to know someone that going through hell and back out on the UTMB course?! I’m going dodge that top 5 question. I think we know there is a young spaniard who will take some beating…..
iRunFar: When iRunFar last spent time with you at the finish line of the Hardrock 100, you were a tired man, having placed third at both Hardrock and the Western States 100. What’s been going on since that July morning in Silverton? We really want to know what recovery was like from two big races and two big performances.
Nick Clark: Hardrock was a slog, and, yes, I was a tired boy after that one. The two weeks after Hardrock I didn’t do a great deal of running, but I did manage to get out for a couple of fun longer alpine jaunts in the Comanche Wilderness on the weekends. Nothing too stressful, more meditative than anything. Mainly though, I used the down time to catch up on work, get started on home maintenance projects, and hang out with my family. Running was very low on my list of priorities.
iRF: Once you recovered, what kind of training have you been up to? Where have you been training and how has it been going?
Clark: Well, I’ve basically been trying to ride my fitness from Western States all summer, but, to be honest, I’m still in the hole recovery-wise from all the racing this summer. I have actually run two very tough races since Hardrock – Karl’s sadistic Speedgoat 50k race and then the Sierre-Zinal 31km in Switzerland two weekends ago – which, while fun, has not proven to be the best recovery/UTMB-preparation strategy. So anyway, I took the two light weeks after Hardrock and then tried to inject some higher turnover workouts into my training in a bid to have something for Sierre-Zinal. The third weekend after Hardrock I raced Speedgoat and tried to follow that up with a higher mileage week. I managed to get some good workouts in, but had to cut the mileage as I just ran out of gas by the weekend. Karl’s race took more out of me than I had hoped it would. Then it was off to Switzerland where I just ran the classic 31km Sierre-Zinal mountain race on a very tired and lackluster pair of pins.
After Sierre-Zinal, I upped ship with my traveling companions (Scott Jaime and Dakota Jones) for Chamonix. I didn’t run at all the first three days in Cham, then did a very light run on Thursday with Scott on the gently rolling 10 miles from the start of UTMB to Les Houches and back. I tweaked my knee a bit at Sierre-Zinal, so those three days of no running were forced, but, quite honestly, it was much needed rest and still far from enough. Had I been feeling okay, I’m sure I’d have been off chewing up as much vertical as possible – the running options from Chamonix are mind-blowing.
Thursday we were out running some of the course above Courmayeur in Italy with a fun group of Yankie UTMB runners. Topher Gaylord organized the day’s festivities, which included a run up to Col de La Seine, a cruise on course to a refugio (hut) at the top of a ski lift above town, then a huge pasta lunch promptly followed by a 2 mile, 2,500′ plunge into Courmayeur. Everyone held onto their lunch, I think. Yesterday (Sat), I was out with Kilian and Dakota both of whom summited Mont Blanc from the valley floor in Les Houches (12,500′ total climb to 15,900′ – yowzer!). I exercised some self-control and turned around 6k’ into the climb. Both Dakota and Kilian were looking very strong. So right now, I’m just hoping I can pull off one more good performance at UTMB and then disappear into racing obscurity for the rest of the year.
iRF: You raced Sierre-Zinal last weekend, was it a tune-up race for UTMB? How did it go for you?
Clark: I’m not quite sure how to categorize the Sierre-Zinal race. I wanted to at least try and race well there as Pablo Vigil puts a lot of effort into organizing the US contingent, but I knew going in that I would be a long way off from running to potential. I gave it what I had on the day, but definitely felt that I had a sub-par run. I guess you could call it a tune-up race for UTMB, but really I just wanted to go out there and experience the event. Under normal circumstance, there is no way I’d be running such a tough mountain race two weeks before a big 100-miler.
iRF: Between Sierra-Zinal and UTMB, are you spending some time tapering and relaxing over there in Europe? Some sightseeing by foot? Something else?
Clark: As noted above, its been a mix of resting and running thus far. I’m doing the last eight miles of the course today (Sunday) and then my parents arrive in town tomorrow. I will run very little once they arrive: three to four mile jogs along the river. The mountains are very accessible here, and you don’t really have to work for anything (cable cars and cog trains everywhere) if you don’t want to. I’ll be taking advantage of that with my parents: cable cars to scenic spots for lunch, light hikes, etc.
iRunFar: You placed second at the Western States 100, just four minutes back of Kilian Jornet. That must have been a performance you were proud of. How did recovery go for you? And, in the two or so months between WS100 and UTMB, what kind of training have you been up to?
Mike Wolfe: I was definitely happy with my performance at WS this year. I felt great afterwards. I think it was the fastest I’ve recovered after a 100. I was generally fatigued for a bit, but that’s it. Since WS, I have just been focusing on lots of vertical, in terms of training. I was able to get in a good hard block of training late July through first couple weeks of August…. we’ll see whether that pays off in a few days, I suppose.
iRF: It looks like you might have raced and won a 50k in Montana earlier this month, the HURL Elkhorn 50K. We imagine it was a UTMB tune-up race. How did you feel during it? Did you experience the results you wanted for the day?
Wolfe: I decided to run the Elkhorn 50km two days prior. It was during my big block of training, and I did it solely as a “beat myself up” training run. Elkhorn was right at the tailend of a BIG 12-day block for me. My legs were fatigued, but I got out of it what I wanted, then put in 11k of vert in 20+ miles the next day.
iRF: You’re obviously quite fit. And, you’ve been to UTMB before, having placed second there last year, so you know all about the Euro-racing scene. Signs point toward this being a pretty spectacular race for you. What do you think?
Wolfe: I try not to ever speculate or go into races with any significant expectations on myself. I want to run my heart out, and I am excited for the depth of competition. Ultimately, for me, it’s about pushing my personal limits and relishing the love of the mountain environment (and, at UTMB, enjoying the amazing spirit/culture for this race). The competition always pushes me to explore my limits and that’s what its all about.
iRF: You put up a good fight against Kilian at WS100. What will it be like to compete against him and other top Euros on their home turf?
Wolfe: Tough, and tougher. No doubt about that. In addition to Kilian, there are a bunch of top Euros that will certainly be pushing up front. They have the advantage of training over here and course knowledge. But, no excuses. We are all equal when the race gun goes off.
Call for Comments
So, what do you think of the runners? Who do you think will win? How about top five?
International readers, please fill us in on some more of the top runners from outside the US!