Seth Swanson laid it all out in his first trip to the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc. He worked his way up to as high as second before ending up in fourth. In the following interview, he talks about how he felt before the race, how how his dynamic race played out, and why it’s so tempting to overindulge when visiting the Alps.
For more on how the race went down, read our 2015 UTMB results article.
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Seth Swanson Post-2015 Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Bryon Powell of iRunFar here with Seth Swanson after his fourth-place finish at the 2015 Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc. How are you doing?
Seth Swanson: I’m doing good.
iRunFar: What a race.
Swanson: I know it. It was a pretty awesome day.
iRunFar: I’ve seen you crush Western States a couple years, and you’ve run some mountain 100s in line with that like Cascade Crest. Nothing like this.
Swanson: I don’t know if I’d go as far as saying in line, but it certainly is a little bit more pitched than maybe Western. This is a class all of its own really from what I’ve experienced.
iRunFar: You’ve experienced all of it.
Swanson: It was pretty awesome.
iRunFar: Was the race in line with your expectations?
Swanson: It’s tough. It’s tough to come here almost completely blind. I was telling Norel as soon as we landed in Chamonix, I was thinking, I’m not prepared for this. Everything is big. Everything is super steep. Yeah, so it was tough.
iRunFar: So you felt maybe a little intimidated before the race?
Swanson: Oh, yeah. There were some other lingering things. There’s that period of time during tapering where you get a little bit of self-doubt. When you’re not running as much, your mind has time to wander a little bit, so there’s always a bit of self-doubt. Then you throw in these huge massive climbs, and…
iRunFar: Were you able to get much training in between Western States and UTMB?
Swanson: Yeah. I certainly could have benefited from more. It’s tough to try to manage and balance recovering and building back up and doing it in a smart fashion and all the things that go with life as well. Yeah, I had a little bit of time off after Western. We took some time and visited family up the coast and then kind of slowly started to ramp things back up. One aspect, thankfully, is that it’s a totally different course that it was nice not doing the same regimen I was doing for Western.
iRunFar: So you did take a pretty different approach?
iRunFar: Since you were obviously in quite good fitness, did you just pound the mountains?
Swanson: Yeah, I mean, what we have around home is… there is a little bit of pitch coming out of town but nothing that sustained—2,000 to 3,000 feet at the most. I just tried to concentrate on the steeper things and worry less about going fast and worry more about packing as much vert in as I could. I still don’t think I did enough, but…
iRunFar: So you’re on the start line, there’s the countdown, there’s the music…
Swanson: It was about a half-hour-long countdown. It was pretty brutal.
iRunFar: And it’s not easy to relax during that time. Nothing like you’ve ever experienced.
Swanson: Absolutely not. First of all, the 6 p.m. start time was tough. It’s one thing to wake up at 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. and have an hour to get ready and then you’re off. But this just kind of festering all day long, just trying to keep the nerves down—when we got to the start line and we’re just kind of sitting there and everybody is packed in, your nerves are racing and you’re wondering if you’re going to be trampled by all these people and there are sticks everywhere. But then once we got started, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought. I just had this nightmare of getting trampled down and just getting trampled by turtles, just this slow-moving pack over you, but…
iRunFar: But you… they go out here. They go out hard. Did it feel like going out on the road like Lake Sonoma or something?
Swanson: Yeah, it was pretty quick, but I did kind of expect that from what I’ve heard. I was probably moving at a faster pace than I normally would have, but it was good to get some space of my own and kind of break things up a little bit. I was kind of excited, too.
iRunFar: The first time I saw you was about 20 miles in at Les Contamines, and you just—none of that emotion or excitement or fatigue—you were just so calm. There was a group of seven guys off the front just pounding it. You just kind of ran in. Was that how you felt at that point?
Swanson: I had some tummy issues right off the start and it was kind of rough for the first day, but I think by then I shook that out and I was kind of feeling a groove and kind of feeling good and just having fun. I mean, going through those aid stations was like this huge party. Saint-Gervais, you thought you were crossing the finish line going through this big arch and music blasting and people yelling and screaming and lining the streets. This is an aid station. I’ll be out in 30 seconds. They didn’t care. It was awesome.
iRunFar: It was the biggest street party you’d ever go to unless you’re at Mardi Gras.
Swanson: Totally. It was great. I was… probably one of my favorite things about this whole experience was all the people.
iRunFar: The next town you come to, the next big town, was Courmayeur. There are some people but it’s in the middle of the night. You come into the aid station and your wife’s there. All the other crews are upstairs and she’s downstairs alone. You’re just like, “How are you?”
Swanson: Yeah, well, it’s 3 a.m. or just shy of 3 a.m., so it’s already a long day for her. We weren’t really quite sure how she was going to get around the mountain. There was a little bit of anxiety there. Yeah, it’s a big day for her as well just to keep me going.
iRunFar: It’s rare to see people that are so… people are happy to see their crew and you gave the nice kiss on your way out, but you were so cognizant of how she was doing as opposed to your needs in the moment.
Swanson: I keep it pretty simple. I don’t gather many material things from her in terms of food, hydration, or nutrition. I think it’s more of the mental component.
iRunFar: You made up some ground by the time you got to Courmayeur, and you kept moving up. Did it feel good to be catching people?
Swanson: Yeah, but I don’t know if I was really catching them or if they were just dropping back or out. Yeah, it felt good. It felt good that I was feeling good, and I was moving pretty well. I was trying to stay pretty calm and not get too wrapped up in that. The night was pretty good. It was tough. It was humid and warm all night long. It never really cooled off.
iRunFar: When did you catch Luis Alberto [Hernando] to move into second place?
Swanson: Coming into Champex-Lac, I think I heard that I was four minutes back. I’d been hearing that for a little bit. Leaving that aid station, there he was. He was just ahead of me. I slowly kept pace with him around the lake. Before we hopped on the trail, I caught up to him and jumped in front of him. That first climb there, we just yo-yoed back and forth for awhile.
iRunFar: When you went by, you just caught him with such authority, looking at splits as you were going along, it just seemed like you were flying by him—but that’s not how it went?
Swanson: No, it wasn’t at all. The climb going into Champex, I was hurting. That’s when the pain really started. I knew I had those four huge climbs. I’m already fatigued. It’s going to get hot. They were progressively worse, slower and slower, going up and down. Yes, I think I definitely slowed down there. Maybe some more prep in advance knowing what you were really getting into would have helped in that area.
iRunFar: The other reports we were getting along the course when you were yo-yoing with Luis Alberto, he was crushing the descents…
Swanson: He was. He was super strong.
iRunFar: But you were the one working the climbs.
Swanson: Yeah, I was feeling good in the climbs just going slow and steady with nothing fancy.
iRunFar: You weren’t sprinting up the mountain?
Swanson: I was not. There was no sprinting going on out there until the last two miles. I was moving fine. Like I said, nothing fancy. Yeah, he was just flying down those downhills. My legs or knees were just trashed. I just couldn’t be as agile as he could on those trails.
iRunFar: We were hearing at the finish that you were sort of weaving in the trail late in the race. Did the heat ever get to you or was that just a hyperbole from folks along the course?
Swanson: It definitely got to me. I don’t know that I was weaving on the trail. I was trying to show off for the crowd. I’m joking.
iRunFar: You never really lost control.
Swanson: No, but it was really, really tough, the heat. I dried out at every stop. I was dipping in sketchy creeks. We’d see cows above. Well, I guess I’d rather get sick in two weeks than sick now. I did what I could to stay hydrated, it just wasn’t enough. I didn’t come here expecting that. It’s been plenty hot at home this summer. It really took a lot out of me to the point where on those last few climbs, it was tough to take in the food, too, gels, because I was so dehydrated.
iRunFar: So Luis Alberto eventually started to pull away from you a little bit, but then David Laney comes out of nowhere. Were you hearing reports that he was…?
Swanson: No. The last climb up Col des Montets there, I caught him [Luis]. There was a little footpath leading into that. I caught him right at the base of that climb and stepped in front and was leading up the first part of that climb. Then he pulled away and had a few minutes on me, but I pretty much had him in sight. It’s just a relentless, endless climb. You get to the top and it just keeps rolling up. I finally got to the Flégère up there, and I peeked over my shoulder because it’s kind of that long way around to see if anybody was behind, and someone tells me “30 minutes.” I’d heard some other reports. I think Luis was maybe five minutes or more ahead of me. So mentally I was, Okay, I’m going to run this last 8k in and take it in and not beat myself up anymore.
iRunFar: Do the conservative approach, just cross the line.
Swanson: Yeah, you know, it’s a huge day already. I’ll just take it in and enjoy it and savor the moment a bit. A couple switchbacks down, some hiker says hello and I hear him say hello again. I look up and it’s David Laney. He just comes right up. From there I hit the gas, too. I was going as fast as I could. Then I tripped and went down. I had a little tumble. He stopped and asked if I was okay. I said, “You’ve gotta’ go, man. You’ve got it.” I got up and picked up the things that fell out of my pack, gathered my senses, and then I was off as fast as I could right behind him. By then, he had 20, 30 seconds on me. He kept that distance. I think that Chalet Floria had never seen people run through it so fast. Yeah, then he just held that gap on me all the way into town. By the time we got all the way into town and through the cattle corral, it was him. I couldn’t get it. I just savored the last little bit.
iRunFar: Did you ever see Luis Alberto ahead of you because in the end it wasn’t far?
Swanson: No, I didn’t, but it was in the forest and there are switchbacks.
iRunFar: You got to savor a little bit?
Swanson: A little bit, but my hands were all bloody.
iRunFar: Luis came up to you at the finish to give you a handshake, and you’re like…
Swanson: Yeah, I went down on my hands, so I was… instead of giving a high-five, I was fist-bumping the crowd. I was a wreck. It was good. It’s racing. It’s competitive. That’s what it’s all about. Looking back, no matter what I heard, I should have stayed strong and pushed it to the end. It’s the way it goes.
iRunFar: You learned something for next time.
Swanson: Yeah. David had an incredible finish to that race. At one point, I think I was looking through some things from the day, and I saw somewhere he was 80 minutes back and he ate that up. Pretty impressive.
iRunFar: He was just flying that whole second half.
Swanson: Yeah, so hats off to that guy. That was pretty awesome.
iRunFar: You had one heck of a race out there.
Swanson: Yeah, it was fun.
iRunFar: Are you proud of that one?
Swanson: Yeah, absolutely. It was good, a good battle to the finish, and a little added bonus fall I could have done without. It was good.
iRunFar: Will you be back here next year?
Swanson: I would definitely like to come back here. It’s such an amazing place. We were here just 10 days total. We got here last Saturday evening. It would have been nice to have a little bit more time in front of that so we could have explored some more of the trails and the area without totally beating myself up. That restraint here… it’s really tough moderation.
iRunFar: It’s claimed many an American.
Swanson: Yeah, good food, amazing trails, “You know up there…” just looking at maps, and all these beautiful places, good coffee. It’s tough not to win. It’s pretty awesome.
iRunFar: Especially when you got to see 170k of trails.
Swanson: That’s true, but 90% of my view was right here.
iRunFar: How was the night besides the humidity?
Swanson: It was fantastic, awesome. It was a full moon which just kind of lit up the whole landscape. It was casting shadows it was so bright. I contemplated killing the headlamp a few times, but I thought better of that. It was such a great night. Really the conditions were pretty awesome.
iRunFar: Does this round out your season?
Swanson: For now. I’ve got to take some downtime. It was a hard summer. I’ll take a little time, rest and recover, and get back to life and all that’s involved there.
iRunFar: With taking second at States and a fourth here, you’re in pretty good spot in the Ultra-Trail World Tour rankings. Those are two huge point races. Any urge to jump into Fuji or Diagonale des Fous to round out the season?
Swanson: Yeah, those are my options. Fuji is less than a month?
iRunFar: Fuji is in four weeks.
Swanson: Seven weeks is Diagonale des Fous?
Swanson: That race is probably more brutal than this?
iRunFar: From what I hear.
Swanson: So I think that’s a good answer. It’s probably not happening. I wish I could, but it wouldn’t be good for anything.
iRunFar: Congratulations on your performance here. Enjoy it.
Swanson: Thanks. I appreciate it. Thanks.
iRunFar: A bonus question for you. Missoula has a darn good reputation from this race. It’s got a second from Mike Wolfe, Mike Foote has finished third?
Swanson: I think his first year he was first American which was pretty awesome.
iRunFar: And you’ve got a fourth.
Swanson: I think his second year, this is trivia so I’m not very good at this, maybe his second year he was second, and his third year…
iRunFar: Foote got a second here?
Swanson: I think so. I think it was the abbreviated course.
iRunFar: Let’s work this out. Is there a fifth? I think Foote has a fifth in there.
Swanson: I think there is, too.
iRunFar: So who’s going to be the first Missoulan to win UTMB? There’s a lot of experience.
Swanson: I suggested to Foote that if Wolfe and I come back next year… that would be pretty cool.
iRunFar: Battle for… oh, do I hear an all-Missoula podium for next year?
Swanson: That would be pretty ambitious, but it would be a lot of fun.
iRunFar: Awesome. Go back to Missoula and have some fun with those guys.