The 2015 Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc is almost here and this year’s women’s field is a big one. As it has for the past several years, the UTMB proves itself as, perhaps, the world’s most competitive 100-mile race. With two-time champion, American Rory Bosio, not returning, Spain’s Núria Picas is one of the clear race favorites, having finished second in the previous two editions. However, there are boatloads of talent who will be chasing her on the 100-mile circuit circumnavigating Europe’s iconic Mount Blanc through France, Italy, and Switzerland.
[We’ve published a full UTMB men’s preview, if you’re interested.]
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The way to I see it, these are the four women with the greatest potential to win.
I suspect that Núria Picas (Spain) (pre-race interview) would really, really like to win this year’s UTMB. She’s twice been second here, last year and the year before (2013 and 2014 interviews) to Rory Bosio. After her February and March participation in the Tarawera Ultramarathon (interview) (second) and Transgrancanaria (interview) (win), Núria went quiet, internationally. After spending some weeks climbing in Nepal this spring, she eased back into running and has been training in her home Pyrenees and participating in national-level trail races as training. Núria at any race is dangerous, but I don’t think we’ve seen her this fresh in a couple years. The only thing that could put a wrench into her plans, I think, would be getting sucked into the early race shenanigans of the dueling French battle twins of Caroline Chaverot and Nathalie Mauclair. While Núria typically goes out Euro hard in ultras, Caroline and Nathalie typically take things another step faster at the start. But if she runs her own race, look out everyone else.
In major races this year, France’s Nathalie Mauclair (pre-race interview) and Caroline Chaverot are split one-one, with Nathalie besting Caroline to win the 2015 IAU Trail World Championships (interview) and Caroline besting Nathalie at the 2015 Lavaredo Ultra Trail. The two both take races out so hard, then slow into them about 20 or so kilometers in. However, despite often racing the men in the race’s early stages, they don’t blow up, and they go on to finish well. It’s a curious strategy that I’m not sure all women can thrive with. However, I see Nathalie as the favorite among this French duo because she now has loads of experience at the 100-mile distance. She was third here last year (interview), about 55 minutes behind second place Núria Picas, she won Diagonale des Fous in 2013 and 2014, and she was third at the 2014 Western States (interview) (40 minutes behind champ Stephanie Howe). She ran out of her mind in winning the trail world champs in May. Since Lavaredo in June, she’s been quiet.
Though she’s been running ultras since 2012, this will be Frenchwoman Caroline Chaverot’s (pre-race interview) debut 100 miler, with her longest distance being her second place (to Núria Picas) at Transgrancanaria in February (interview), which was 125k and had her on the trail for over 17 hours. I suspect that Caroline will very much want to temper herself for an extra six or more hours of running, but can she? In addition this year, she’s also taken second (to Nathalie Mauclair) at the IAU Trail World Championships (interview), and she’s won both Lavaredo (interview) and the Eiger Ultra Trail. It will be absolutely fascinating to see how Caroline and Nathalie strategically approach UTMB.
Third at Western States two months ago (interview), Stephanie Howe (USA) (pre-race interview) is trying to pull off two 100 milers relatively back-to-back. Stephanie has previously found her sweet spot by not racing (or training) too much. Given that Stephanie is a savvy rester, I’d be interested to see what her recovery and training has looked like since States. In addition to States in June, the 2014 Western States champ (interview) has, this year, taken second at the Way Too Cool 50k and won the stacked Lake Sonoma 50 Mile (interview). With her domination of the WS 100 last year and two 100-mile finishes in her pocket, as well as the multiple weeks she’s been in the Alps training, Stephanie has the street cred to win this thing. When the Euro contingency rockets off the front, it’ll be Stephanie’s style to sit back a bit and run her own race. I suspect this could mean we see Stephanie in fifth or so place for a while before she moves up big time in the second half of the race.
This big wave of women contains ladies who’ve well proven themselves on the international level or who have run out of their brains on their home turf, identifying the kind of ability that would allow them to perform well here. Any of these women could go top five.
Francesca Canepa’s (Italy) 2014 was a heckuva year. Last year, she won the Hong Kong 100k, took second at Transgrancanaria (interview), was second at Lavaredo, and won the Eiger Ultra Trail. This year, she’s only finished one of these competitive international ultras, taking third at Eiger (30 minutes behind winner Caroline Chaverot, but running about 15 minutes faster than last year), so it’s a little hard to judge her physical and mental fitness. If the Francesca of 2014 toes the UTMB line this weekend, she’s podium potential.
Fernanda Maciel (Brazil) is a three-time UTMB finisher, having finished fourth at the shortened-by-weather-and-restarted 2010 edition, seventh at the also-shortened-by-weather 2012 edition, and fourth in 26 hours on last year’s full course. In previous years, Fernanda has seemingly raced a big ultra every couple months, but we’ve only heard from her on the international scene when she ran to third place (1 hour, 40 minutes behind winner Caroline Chaverot) at Lavaredo. I am curious to see what a fresh Fernanda races like.
Uxue Fraile (Spain) finished fifth here last year in 26:22. Her recent top performances include third place at the 2014 Diagonale des Fous (almost three hours behind winner Nathalie Mauclair), sixth place at the 2015 IAU Trail World Championships, and fourth place at the 2015 Eiger Ultra Trail. She’s the most patient female Euro racer I’ve yet watched, content to sit back and let other women go as the early kilometers tick off. She could very well be running outside the top 10 for 80k before holding steady while early pace pushers drop back.
Some may not remember because it’s been four years, but Darcy Piceu (USA) has already had a strong UTMB, finishing third in 28.5 hours in 2011. Times have changed since then, though, and that time last year would have yielded her seventh place. This year, Darcy won the Bighorn 50 Mile and took second at the Hardrock Hundred (interview). Normally, I’d wonder if she was recovered given she raced a huge mountain race in mid-July, but she’s raced Hardrock a number of times so I suspect her body knows how to bounce back. She’s been in the Alps training for a couple weeks, too, so she’s got acclimation on her side.
I’m pretty excited to watch Amy Sproston (USA) race. I think she could really fire one off here. She’s currently on the 2015 tour of righting her ultra-racing mistakes of the past. So far, this has meant winning the HURT 100 Mile after dropping there in 2011 and now retrying UTMB after dropping in 2013. She has one UTMB finish to her name, an eighth in the weather-shortened 2012. Amy has also peppered in a couple other international races this year, including a second place at The North Face 100 – Australia (interview).
2015 seems to be Nicole Studer’s (USA) year of racing outside her home state of Texas, where she kills almost every race she enters. This includes her performance this past February, a 14:22:18 American record for 100 miles on the trails at Texas’s Rocky Raccoon 100 Mile (interview). In one of her first ultras outside of Texas, she finished sixth at this year’s Western States. While Nicole has the talent to compete in the top tier of women here at UTMB, I’m not sure she can get in enough mountain running where she lives in
San AntonioDallas to do so. However, her WS 100 sixth place indicates she’ll hold her own quite well.
Ester Alves (Portugal) ran to eighth place in 28:39 here at UTMB in 2014. For the first five or so months of this year, it seemed like she was racing anything she could get her hands on. At first she was running well, and then she seemingly suffered from mounting fatigue. Her 2015 performances have included a sixth at Transgrancanaria, a win of Madeira Island Ultra Trail, a seventh at Transvulcania, finishing way back at the Zegama Marathon, and a 15th at Lavaredo. It doesn’t appear that she’s raced in a full two months, though.
Denise Zimmermann (Switzerland) runs well in some of Europe’s toughest long ultras. She’s a three-time UTMB finisher, including a 2009 fourth place in 31:16, a 2011 fourth place in 29:26, and a 2012 15th place at the weather-shortened edition. Last year, Denise took third at the Tor des Géants, and this year she’s been 12th at Transgrancanaria, sixth at Lavaredo, fifth at the Eiger Ultra Trail, among other races.
I really have no idea how Lisa Borzani’s (Italy) body survives so many racing miles. In May, before the IAU Trail World Championships (at which Lisa finished 11th), I wrote, “In 2015 alone, she’s put in over 500 kilometers of racing in at least seven races–most of them being small Italian races with the exception of Hong Kong–and all of them have been podium finishes.” In the three months since then she’s racked up an additional 550 racing kilometers, putting her 2015 total at over 1,000 kilometers. This has included 10th and 14th places respectively at the Lavaredo and the Eiger Ultra Trails, as well as a win of a 140k race in Italy called the Orobie Ultra-Trail a month ago. Phew. She was second at the TDS last year.
Here are the women I expect to see in the back half of the women’s top 10 or, perhaps, in the top 15. Yep, welcome to women’s ultrarunning in 2015; we’re still rolling with more fast ladies.
A couple of these women will, no doubt, surprise us with breakout performances.