France’s Aurélien Dunand-Pallaz had a breakout race in finishing second at the 2021 UTMB. In the following interview, our first with Aurélien, he talks about what his background in sports is, what his experience is in eight-plus years of ultrarunning, how this was his first 100 miler, and how the race played out from his perspective.
For more on what happened during the race, check out our UTMB results article for the play-by-play and links to other post-race interviews.
Aurélien Dunand-Pallaz Post-2021 UTMB Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Meghan Hicks of iRunFar. I’m here with Aurélien Dunand-Pallaz, the second-place finisher of the 2021 UTMB. Congratulations and hello, Aurélien.
Aurélien Dunand-Pallaz: Merci beaucoup. Merci.
iRunFar: Oh my gosh, it’s the morning after your second-place finish. How are you feeling right this moment?
Dunand-Pallaz: [through translator] My legs are really, really sore this morning. I really didn’t sleep well last night but I’ve got all the emotions and all the flashbacks coming back and it’s been like that all night so I’m feeling quite good actually.
iRunFar: It was fun to watch you walk down the stairs off camera a few minutes ago, taking them very gently.
Dunand-Pallaz: It’s only the second time I’ve been so sore after a race. The first time when I broke the world record for elevation gain last year. It’s really sore.
iRunFar: This is iRunFar’s first time interviewing you, Aurélien. I’d love to know more about you. Where you live, what you do when you’re not running, and how you came to be a runner.
Dunand-Pallaz: I’m a local guy from the French Alps. I currently live close to Lake Annecy. I’m from a local mountain range called Les Bauges next to it. I started running in 2012. Before that I came from a soccer, football background and also a lot of skiing. So I do a lot of ski mountaineering still and I’m still very competitive in ski mountaineering during the winter. And apart from running I’m a physiotherapist.
iRunFar: Ah, so you can fix yourself after this race.
Dunand-Pallaz: Actually no, because I’m very lucky because my girlfriend is also a physio. I’m counting on her to fix me.
iRunFar: You’ve got a fixer in the house though. We have seen you race at ultramarathons before. You’ve been an ultrarunner for a while. Did you go pretty quickly from running into these very long races, ultras?
Dunand-Pallaz: As soon as I started in 2012, straightaway I went to 50k, 80k. So yesterday was my first 100 miles. I built up to that but right when I started it was always above 50k which was what suited me.
iRunFar: [bells ringing] We’ve got these church bells going in the background and helicopters going. It’s a busy Sunday morning in Chamonix. My next question for you, you said it’s your first 100 miler. This is also your first time at the UTMB festival, is that correct?
Dunand-Pallaz: So I raced CCC in 2013 where I came seventh. I actually DNFed TDS in 2018.
iRunFar: Okay, okay. It’s interesting to know that you had some background here in Chamonix at the UTMB festival before you decided to make the whole loop around the mountain. I hadn’t seen that [you] had some experience at the UTMB festival before deciding to make the big UTMB.
iRunFar: So when the race went off on Friday evening, you went out to the front or very close to the front early. Did you feel confident? Did you feel calm? What were your emotions early in the race?
Dunand-Pallaz: I was feeling really good at the start so I thought I was just was running with my feelings. And I was amongst all the favorites with François [D’Haene] with Jim [Walmsley] and everyone at the front. The rhythm actually suited me so it was nice to run with those guys at the start so I just ran with it.
iRunFar: It was interesting for me to look at say the group of men who were together at the top of the first climb to Délveret, and all of the people that you were with, around you, besides François, did not finish the race. So it was you and he near the front who stayed there the whole time.
Dunand-Pallaz: In those races there’s unfortunately a lot of DNFs, so I was one of the lucky guys to hang on.
iRunFar: This year was quite interesting in that it typically, in the evening start, it can be hot. But Friday night was very cool. It seemed like good racing conditions environmentally?
Dunand-Pallaz: It was cool at the start. It was cool during the night and I was really, really happy with that because obviously I’m really a winter guy and I love the cold, so I prefer to put some gloves and a jacket on if I need to, and I’m really comfortable in the cold so I think the conditions really suited me.
iRunFar: The night makes up so much of this race. We go to dark racing for a long time. You’re going over Col de Bonhomme, Les Chapieux, Col de la Seigne, past Courmayeur before sunrise. What was that time like for you? Being by yourself in the night, seeing headlamps before, behind.
Dunand-Pallaz: I was actually never alone during the night which was really good. Yeah, I actually the whole night was with Germain Grangier.
iRunFar: The entire time.
Dunand-Pallaz: Yes, and there were a couple, at the beginning there was Germain, but there was also Dmitry Mityaev, the Russian guy and also Pablo Villa, but then those guys dropped out. Then when I came out of Courmayeur, while we were with Pablo and Germain, Pablo pulled out. And then we caught up to Jim Walmsley who didn’t feel good after Bertone who also pulled out. And then we were on our own, both of us. It was actually really good for them because they were chatting all along and the time went by faster during the night and they had François at length and we could see him about between, always between five and 10 minutes ahead. And then, which was even better, we could see there weren’t any headlamps before. We had already built a gap to the guys behind.
iRunFar: So maybe in that sense the night was nice in that you knew you were comfortably behind François but ahead of the other men?
Dunand-Pallaz: Yeah, I was actually quite comfortable to be in that position because we knew François was feeling strong but he was still within, maybe within reach. But what was really important I think for both of us was to try and consolidate that podium spot and to get some gap on the guy behind which was what we were doing and then we would see when the sun would rise, how would François react and would he, would he stop pushing even more. It was good for us.
iRunFar: I don’t know if this is a thing with French runners, but American runners say that the UTMB race really begins in Champex-Lac for the final 45 kilometers or so. Is that, is that a thing that you were thinking about, too? Like how to get to Champex-Lac feeling good for the rest of the race?
Dunand-Pallaz: For me, the race starts before because it’s only, only 45k after Champex.
iRunFar: [laughs] I love it.
Dunand-Pallaz: And also the field at UTMB so competitive. So, I mean you have to be, well, if you want to get a good positioning at the end, you need to get to be well positioned at the front. So I wanted to be well-placed, and I was lucky enough to be to actually be still feeling quite good when I reached Champex-Lac, which is when I actually dropped Germain.
iRunFar: I was going to say, it was around then that you must have been racing mostly by yourself then.
Dunand-Pallaz: I was feeling good coming down from La Fouly, and I thought, I must attack Germain. I attacked him on the climb to Champex-Lac, and I pushed really, really hard on that climb because I wanted to get a good gap on him and try and secure, I mean, try to get that second spot and…
iRunFar: I think it worked. I think you were by yourself really pushing into Champex and beyond that, your minutes on Germain and the rest of the field just increased the rest of the race, while you and François maintained about the same gap from each other from there to the finish.
Dunand-Pallaz: I wasn’t worried about what was happening with François because, I mean, there was always between 12 to 17 minutes depending on the downhill and uphills, but I started getting more worried that actually, very worried about the comeback of Mathieu Blanchard at the end of the race. So it was quite stressful for me I think from, from the climb to, to La Giéte I was starting to get really worried because you could see, obviously we were giving time, time difference to him, and he was, he was losing time, I mean Mathieu was gaining time so I starting getting worried.
iRunFar: So maybe that’s almost an answer to my next question that you were thinking about maintaining your position all the way to the finish and maybe there wasn’t there wasn’t a moment where it set in that, “I’m going to get second at UTMB.”
Dunand-Pallaz: Only in the last hour and a half I could actually, feeling that it was secure and enjoy it. When I, when I reached Tête aux Vents and the traverse from Tête aux Vents to La Flégère, because I could see I had pushed really hard on the climb to Tête aux Vents, and I could see that Mathieu wasn’t getting time. So I knew from that spot and I still had really good feelings. I’m a good downhill runner and I had to see how good I’m feeling going down so I knew it was, it was good starting from then.
iRunFar: Our reporter on final descent around La Floria said you were flying there compared to the people in front of and behind you.
Dunand-Pallaz: I was lucky, I don’t know if it’s lucky but I was well prepared because all the downhills were really good for me during the whole race, and especially that last one where my legs were still actually quite good and I could actually enjoy it so I just let it flow and had a good downhill.
iRunFar: What was it like to… I can’t believe these bells are going the whole interview. What was it like to run through Chamonix through the line of crowds and to cross the finish second place?
Dunand-Pallaz: Obviously I’d seen all the pictures and the videos but it’s nothing compared to when you actually go through it yourself. I was starting to get very, very emotional because I started thinking about all the training and I’ve had a lot of injuries in the past years. And so all the sacrifices I have done, I mean in the past month and years, so everything started to come back and I was, I was very emotional. So it was, I really enjoyed it.
iRunFar: It was really enjoyable to watch also. Yeah, you just let your emotions out. It looked like there were feelings of relief and happiness just pouring out.
Dunand-Pallaz: Yeah, especially after being tired after spending 20 hours running into mountains, I let everything go. And I had my girlfriend who had done all the assistance during the race who was there for me. So she was very emotional as well so it was, it was a very special moment for me.
iRunFar: My last question for you, which I think is a mean question to ask the day after 100 miles, but do you have other plans for running or racing in 2021?
Dunand-Pallaz: Yes, I will race again. I just don’t know where for the moment. I don’t want to decide now. I’m going on holiday tomorrow for two weeks with his girlfriend.
Dunand-Pallaz: And I will sit down with my coach. Well, yeah, I want to race one last race, either in between late September and November, somewhere in there.
iRunFar: So glad to hear you’re taking your vacation. And congratulations on your second-place finish at the 2021 UTMB.
Dunand-Pallaz: Thank you very much.