2011 The North Face Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc Results & Report

At 9 pm Central European Time Sunday evening, a full week’s worth of races around Mont Blanc wrapped up as the headline event, The North Face Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc concluded in Chamonix, France. Last year’s race was a washout before being restarted the next day in Courmayeur. In the intervening year, the race saw numerous changes, including a few on race week and even once the race had begun.

The Weather
Prior to the race there was a good deal of talk among top competitors about the significant increases in compulsory gear the race organization placed on runners. Much less talked about was the fact that the race organization developed at least 11 route alterations as well as an enhanced capacity to deal with unanticipated events as they arise. Both of these changes came into play this year.

In the days before the race it became clear that foul weather would once again affect UTMB. In particular, a strong, but well-defined and fast-moving cold front would pass over Mont Blanc Friday late afternoon and evening. Given high confidence in the storm forecast, the race organization postponed the race 5 hours in hopes that the worst weather would pass before runners tackled the 2,500m (8,200′) passes at Col du Bonhomme and Col de la Seigne. In addition, prior to the race the final climb to Tete aux Vents and on through La Flegere was removed with the course re-routed down the valley via the course used in the race’s first three years. This reroute would make the course shorter and quite a bit faster.

The race started at 11:30 pm local time with great enthusiasm… and warm, steady rain in Chamonix. The rain picked up as runners climbed 2,000’+ to Delevret (mile 9) and descended to Saint Gervais (mile 13) before ending as the front of the field approached Les Contamines (mile 20). From there, the skies cleared the runners began the long, 4,000′ climb up Col du Bonhomme, the first of the courses four ~2,500m (8,000’+) peaks. In other words, the forecasters and race organization perfectly timed the break in the weather.

It was on Col du Bonhomme and the subsequent climbs to ~2,500m atop Col de la Seigne and Arete du Mont-Favre that the mandatory equipment really came into play. Runners who’d never worn waterproof pants while running did so early Saturday morning for warmth. Kilian Jornet donned every piece of clothing he had packed. Numerous runners considered wearing their emergency blankets and some likely did. The temperatures dropped well below freezing on the passes and snow covered the grass well below the passes and the ground froze hard once the skies cleared. In addition, exposed mountainsides could be quite windy. For example, permanent safety crew at Arete du Mont-Favre estimated 50+ mile per hour winds while it snowed… at 11 am Saturday morning.

In contrast, it felt quite warm in the afternoon in Courmayeur and Martigny. A number of runners have described this year’s UTMB as one of four seasons.

At least the weather was nice in La Fouly. Photo by Meghan Hicks/iRunFar.com.

The night’s foul weather also damaged the Bovine aid station after Champex-Lac. Once it became clear during the race that the aid station could not service the field, the organization decided to divert runners down a huge descent into the town of Martigny and back up a steep climb. This change actually lengthened the race longer than the standard distance to 170k (105.6 miles) with more elevation gain and loss.

So why all the weather talk for a report on the world’s most competitive trail ultramarathon? Because it, in part, dictated the story of race. It took its toll on the elite field with an overall finisher rate 47% (1126 of 2369). Even many top veteran UTMB finishers failed to make it back to Chamonix on foot. While there’s no such thing as an easy 100 miler, this year’s UTMB was particularly difficult to finish.

Men’s Race
In the men’s race, the UTMB tradition of runners going out like mad continued in full force.  How does 5 miles in 30 minutes at the start of a 100+ mile mountain trail race start? Yes, crazy would fit the bill. What’s even crazier is that it didn’t seem to phase the top contenders.

In arriving at Les Contamines (mile 20) following the first climb at Delevre, a group of Kilian Jornet, Geoff Roes, Miguel Heras, Mike Wolfe, Iker Carrera, and a couple additional European runners came through within a minute or two of one another.

The next 20 miles saw to huge climbs to Col du Bonhomme and Col de la Seigne and a surprise leader Nemeth Csaba at Lac Combal (mile 40). A minute back, a train of Sebastien Chaigneau, Wolfe, Heras, and Carrera with Jornet just behind.

Eight miles later, the men arrived in Courmayeur (mile 48), the symbolic midpoint in the race … though, in reality, it is still well before mid-race. Indeed, the race was far from beginning, although its principle contenders had packed up. Jornet, Heras, and Carrera, all three Salomon teammates from Spain (well, Kilian is technically from Catalonia and Iker from the Basque region), and Chaigneau of The North Face had put a three minute lead on Csaba and five minutes on Wolfe. Carlos Sa was 11 minutes behind the leaders.

Kilian Jornet and Iker Carrera in La Fouly. Photo by Meghan Hicks/iRunFar.com.

These guys then settled in for a long run together. While they accordioned at times, they were never more than two or three minutes between first and fourth. Most of the time, they all ran together with the three Spaniards chatting away while Jornet and Chaigneau could carry on their own side conversation in French.

Heading down to Martigny (mile 85), a city added to the route mid-race, the pack held firm, but the tremendous and unplanned descent destroyed the cement that held the four together. Miguel Heras’ knee had been bothering him since well before La Fouly (mile 67 miles). As the group headed out for a tremendous (4-5,000′) climb, Heras told the group to go ahead as he could no longer hold the pace. He dropped at Trient (mile 90), the next major aid station.

Jornet then made his move to put two minutes on Carrera and seven minutes on Chaigneau by the top of the climb just over 3 miles after Martigny. Still, Carrera was only two and a half minutes behind Jornet at Vallorcine (mile 96) and 5 minutes ahead of Chaigneau. Jornet dawdled at Vallorcine and, apparently, let Carrera catch back up by Argentiere.

After the race, Carrera indicated that he caught his teammate on the descent to Argentiere, but he had no inclination to try to hang with Kilian up the subsequent climb. Rather, he would be content to run slightly more conservatively to increase his chances of holding off Chaigneau. Jornet later indicated that he wanted to finish with Carrera, but that he didn’t want Chaigneau to catch them, so he pushed the pace from Argentiere to the fnish.

In the end, Kilian Jornet won his third TNF UTMB in 20:36. Who knows how fast he could have run if he’d wanted to push the pace. His original plan had to bring the UTMB record under 20 hours. Instead, once he learned of the delayed start and course alterations, he decided to make an enjoyable run with his teammates. There are stories from throughout the race of Jornet waiting for his teammates at the top of hills or stopping to chat with spectators along the course.

Iker Carrera (20:45) put a bit more time on Sebastien Chaigneau (20:55) on the way to the finish. Nemeth Csaba (22:35) held his position from before Courmayeur until the finish, but moving up into fourth when Miguel Heras dropped. Carlos Sa rounded out the top five in 22:48.

Men’s Results

  • 1 – Kilian Jornet (Spain) – 20:36:43 (pre-UTMB and post-UTMB video interviews)
  • 2 – Iker Carrera (Spain) – 20:45:30
  • 3 – Sebastien Chaigneau (France) – 20:55:41 (post-UTMB video interview)
  • 4 – Nemeth Csaba (Hungary) – 22:35:48
  • 5 – Carlos Sa (Portugal) – 22:48:24

 

  • 7 – Tsuyoshi Kaburaki (Japan) – 23:41:04
  • 11 – Mike Foote (USA) – 24:25:12 (post-UTMB video interview)
  • 14 – Nick Pedatella (USA) – 25:51:33
  • 21 – Jack Pilla (USA) – 27:35:26
  • 26 – Mike Wolfe (USA) – 28:01:47
  • 40 – Scott Jaime (USA) – 29:17:13
  • 81 – Jason Poole (USA) – 32:27:54
  • T-371 – Hal Koerner (USA) – 38:55:39
  • T-371 – Roch Horton (USA) – 38:55:39

Full results

Kilian Jornet after winning the TNF UTMB 2011. Photo by Meghan Hicks/iRunFar.com.

Women’s Race
In the women’s race, Lizzy Hawker led from the gun and continued building her lead from there. By mile 70, she developed severe hip pain and was unsure as to whether she would finish. She did finish and in 25:02, a mere 4 minutes off Krissy Moehl’s women’s course record. Despite gaining her record fourth UTMB win, missing the record leaves Hawker with a bit of unfinished business at the race. She plans on making another go if it at next year’s tenth edition of TNF UTMB.

Like Hawker, Nerea Martinez held second place for the vast majority of the race. Fernanda Maciel stayed within half an hour most of the day before dropping out at Champex-Lac, giving Martinez a good lead over Maud Gobert. Darcy Africa was the top American woman throughout the race, staying in the second half of the top ten through Champex.

After Champex, there was still 30 miles to shake up the women’s field. With 16 miles to go at Trient (mile 90), Martinez took a significant break, letting the women’s field close the gap. In contrast, Africa was reinvigorated by her crew at Champex-Lac and started charging forward despite residue fatigue from her second place finish at the Hardrock 100 in early July.

Much like she did at Hardrock, Africa ran out of real estate. With 9k (5.6 miles) to go at Argentiere, Martinez had an hour gap on the American. By the finish, Africa had cut that margin to 35 minutes. Martinez held on for second place in 27:56 while Africa moved up all the way to third with a finishing time of 28:31. Africa became the first person, man or woman, to place top three at both Hardrock and UTMB in the same summer. American Helen Cospolich hung tough and moved up via attrition to finish sixth in 30:28.

Women’s Results

  • 1 – Lizzy Hawker (UK) – 25:02:00 (post-UTMB video interview)
  • 2 – Nerea Martinez (Spain) – 27:55:34
  • 3 – Darcy Africa (USA) – 28:30:28
  • 4 – Denise Zimmerman (Switz.)- 29:26:39
  • 5 – Maud Gobert (France) – 30:20:59
  • 6 – Helen Cospolich (USA) – 30:27:37

Full results

Lizzy Hawker after winning the 2011 TNF UTMB. Photo by Meghan Hicks/iRunFar.com.

DNFs
There were many DNFs at this year’s TNF UTMB. In the end, more than half the field dropped, including many top veterans of the race. It’s hard to underestimate the effect the weather, the delayed start, and the significant reroutes had on the racers. Having been on the course, at least the delayed start seems like quite the solid decision. There’s no doubt that major last minute changes can have a significant effect on the mind. I offer that not at all in criticism of the race organization, but to give perspective.

Race Reports

Race Resources and Articles

Call for Comments
So what did you think of this year’s The North Face Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc?

[While I normally don’t add something like this, please keep the discussion thoughtful, civil, and infused with the sense of camaraderie that the UTMB competitors show one another.]

Bryon Powell: is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of iRunFar.com. Having spent nearly 20 years as an ultrarunner and three decades as a trail runner, he's also written Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons and co-wrote Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running. He calls Silverton, Colorado and Moab, Utah home.

View Comments (58)

  • Thanks Bryon. Great write-up, as usual. Reports (and pics from the race) suggested that Jurek, Roes, and Dakota Jones also dropped. Any word on what happened? And, notably missing from your report, how did you fare?

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    • You’re welcome, Andy. Jurek, Roes, and Jones did all drop. As all the conversations I had with them after the race were as friends who DNFed, I’ll let them explain their DNFs in the time, place, and words of their choosing.

      As for me, I dropped out at La Fouly (110km/68 miles). I simply had no energy and hadn’t for quite a long time. In retrospect, I could have slept and been back at it with plenty of time to spare. Lots learned for next time. I’ll have a full report sometime after my European vacation.

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  • Great write up and awesome coverage of the race. Thanks for all you do for the ultra community Bryan (& Meghan)!

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    • Our pleasure, James!

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  • Thanks again for the wonderful coverage...

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    • You're welcome, snurfer. :-)

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  • Great post and great coverage of the race. Can't wait to hear Meghan's behind the scenes stories over beers the next time we're in PC.

    And, I can't believe you dropped. Totally lame:)

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    • Dude, next time we're doing repeats on The Strengthmaker in a snowstorm. Clearly, I need some mental toughening!

      Ps. Bring real beer... I'm drinking again.

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      • I'm there! And, I'll be sure to bring the real stuff. recover well.

        AJW

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  • Bryon

    great report and many thanks for all the "live" updates !! I just read Nick Clarks blog and see that it started a little debate. I'm all for the "camaradarie" approach too but I would like to discuss the issues surrounding the poor American performances. In a completely constructive way of course, but it might shed some light on things and may be of help to all concerned (not just Americans !!). So here are my points on the subject

    1. The law of Specificity : simply put, many of the Europeans live and breath the Alps or at least have spent a lot more time training there.

    2. Competition: the sheer number of athletes means that they quality of the field is big, bigger than any other race. Many of the top American ultrarunners are used to competing in races where they are favourites to win and way ahead of the rest. Maybe 5-10 guys to compete with. The UTMB must have 30-40 guys of similar ability to compete with. This means of course that you may be further back in the field than you're use to. It creates negavtitiy and self expectation suffers.

    3. Travel: maybe a little jet lag ?

    4. Mindset: this is not meant to be specific to the American contingent. More of a general thing that affects all of us. Ultrarunning is a mind game. Here is a great blog on the subject that covers many of the psychological aspects
    http://ultrastu.blogspot.com/2011/08/training-for...

    like I said, the aim is to be completely "civil" here ! just curious and maybe some others will have other idea's to share so we can all learn !!

    Barry

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  • Great coverage, again. Thank you, Bryon.

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  • Merci à l'équipe de irunfar pour nous avoir tenu informés sur l'ensemble du Weekend, super boulot!

    See you around next year hopefully.

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  • Thanks Bryon for the great reporting and for Relentless Forward Progress. I finished the UTMB CCC on Saturday - my first 100 km race! I got hit by the Friday night storm coming into and then out of Martingy. The temperature dropped to near freezing, with snow and freezing rain. It was a tough night but I made it over the climb out of Martingy and down to Chamonix. iRunFar has been so helpful and inspiring. Thanks! Richard

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  • Scott Jaime also finished around 40th place OA.

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  • Jason Poole also finished 80th place OA.

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  • re:Poole. Actually, it's 81st place OA. Sorry.

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  • How does Killian keep his whites so white?

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  • Thanks for the great report!

    There is a typo in the text. I don't know whether Nemeth Csaba is hungry or not, but he is from HungAry.

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    • Sorry about that! My proofreading is not the best after such a long week. :-)

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  • Thanks for the great summary and coverage! Sounds like Kilian had a nice "long run". Very inspiring but like he said in a pre-race interview anything can happen at this distance...

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  • Just wanted to offer my thanks also to Bryon & Megan for the interviews & live updates - irunfar was definitely the best source of information on the web!

    Having also run the CCC Friday/Saturday, I may have complained about the mandatory kit before the start, but was I grateful even for the waterproof trousers by the middle of the night!

    Congrats to everyone who took part and like Bryon said, let's not get too tribal about those who didn't finish - there were some good Euros who didn't make it to the end either - the weather made a tough race brutal!

    Cheers,

    /m

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    • Great point Mark on the fact that it wasn't just the Americans that were hit hard by the DNF bug.

      And congratulations on your running of the CCC!

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  • I think everyone that would even run, finish, place or attempt to finish this race are in a class all their own. :) Great job everyone! And, thanks one more time for the coverage (and again-Mike's finishing video...upside down or not :), Bryon and Meghan!

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    • Just wait until the video in the morning. ;-)

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      • REALLY?! Don't think anything could beat what you guys have already given me...

        P.S. But if you do...I'll just like you that much more. ...(you don't know me, but I was Mike's crew at the Bear this year and he had a pretty tough go at it...I was stuck at a very cold aid station near a coffee station for hours as the sun went down. I just happened to be there with your parents, I believe. Listening to them talk about you already me on your side :)!...)

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        • Oops!! I meant Western States, not the Bear...

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          • I was gonna say that you must have met my doppelganger at The Bear! ;-) There was a much better chance of you seeing them at WS. :-)

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  • Just want to add my thanks for your coverage of the race. As the father of one of the runners--that's right, Mike Foote, 1st American & a serious grinder!, It was great to have a place to go reporting & comments. Keep up the good work.

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  • Thanks for the amazing live coverage! I was impress of the constant information and all of the nice pictures! Meghan you rock!!

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  • Bryon/Meghan - Thank you for being such a great resource for uber ultra fans across the world! Your enthusiasm and commitment are highly appreciated.

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  • Great video of the arrival of Kilian, Iker, Seb, Lizzy, and our favorite japanese friend Kakuraki :
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6bhtsWsR96I&fe...

    As always, thanks Irunfar for the coverage. I am french but Irunfar has been for a few months my favorite trail running website ! Congrats Bryon for all, your race, the interviews... Hope to see you again next year for the 10th anniversary of UTMB, or at the Grand Raid de la Réunion !

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    • Big shout out to the IrunFar crew during UTMB. Thanks for being there!

      I have said my congrats numerous times to the Winners but I also want to say what an awesome job all the finishers did... Way to hang in there and get it done.. Rest well and enjoy your victory..

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