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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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
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.
- 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
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.
- 22nd – Jack Pilla
- 42nd – Scott Jaime
- DNF – Jez Bragg (preliminary and full race reports)
- DNF – Nick Clark
- DNF – Joe Grant
- DNF – Dakota Jones
- DNF – Scott Jurek
DNF – Krissy Moehl[Broken link to September 3, 2011 blogpost removed]
- DNF – Geoff Roes
- Crewing – Ian Sharman
Race Resources and Articles
- Competitor Running – men’s and women’s reports
Pro Photos via Mud, Sweat & Tears[broken link removed]
- Andy Jones-Wilkins’ thoughts on UTMB and his follow up post
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.]