Dissecting The UTMB

A discussion about the 2014 Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc.

By on September 10, 2014 | Comments

François D’Haene did not win UTMB because American men underachieved. He won because he is one of the best 100-mile trail runners in the world and he went out and ran an aggressive, steady, and dominating race. He was clearly the favorite going into the race, and it was super impressive to see him go out and take care of business. This said, by virtually all accounts, the American men had collectively yet another sub-par performance in Europe’s premiere 100-mile race. For at least the fourth year in a row, much of the post-UTMB discussion (at least on this side of the pond) has centered around the idea that American men seem to struggle inexplicably in this race. I’ve thought a lot about this trend over the past few years, and I still feel like I have more questions than answers, but here is my attempt at explaining what I have been able to make sense of.

Apples to Oranges
First of all, I think it is important to recognize that this trend is not nearly as distinct as it’s been made out out to be. Many folks have pointed to the success that European runners have had in coming over to the U.S. and winning many big races in the past few years. Without question, a handful of top European runners have had more success in the United States since 2010 than Americans have had in Europe. This said, though, I think it’s important to consider more closely some of the comparisons that are being made. Hardrock has been the obvious example of a race that European men have had very impressive recent success at. Three of the past four winners have come from across the pond, and unless you have been hiding under a rock all summer you are aware that Kilian Jornet absolutely obliterated the course record in July. The problem with reading too much into these results, though, is that Hardrock and UTMB are completely different in terms of what kind of effort it takes to do well in the race. Not to take anything away from anyone who has ever won Hardrock, but these races are so immensely different that it’s almost comical to compare winning one to winning the other. Not only does UTMB have more than 16 times as many starters, it is Europe’s most competitive 100 miler year in and year out. Hardrock was famously competitive this year, but even then it was nowhere near as deep of a field as any recent year at UTMB. I think it’s important not to read too much into the fact that no American man has ever won UTMB, despite the recent success European men have had at Hardrock. After all, only one of the three European runners who have recently won Hardrock has also won UTMB.

In this sense, it makes a lot more sense to compare UTMB to Western States. It’s still not an entirely fair comparison as UTMB has about eight times as many racers, but at least with these two races, we are talking about their respective continents’ premiere 100 miler in terms of history, prestige, and typical competitiveness. Kilian of course won Western States in 2011, but this is the only time a European runner has won the race. In fact Jez Bragg is the only European runner to finish in the top five at Western States in the last several years. It’s also worth noting that Kilian didn’t exactly dominate in his two years running Western States (at least as compared to everything else he has done). If I’m not mistaken, the 2010 Western States still stands as the only 100 miler he didn’t win, and his winning time in 2011 was the slowest of any in the past five years at Western States. It’s one thing to travel half way across the world and try to run effectively in a rugged and challenging race, but it’s another thing altogether to try to run effectively in a race that is not only rugged and challenging but is also that continent’s most prestigious and well-known race, such that many of the runners competing have been preparing for it for a year or more. In the same way that nearly everyone who runs Western States has made it their focus race of the season, nearly all European runners who choose to run UTMB are running it in this same fashion.

This said, it is still undeniable that American men have not performed as well as they are capable of at UTMB. The discrepancy might not be as large as many people have made it out to be, but no matter how you look at the numbers, European runners have fared a decent bit better in races in the U.S. than American runners have in Europe.

What About the Women?
One interesting piece in all of this is that American women have actually done quite well at UTMB (as compared to both American men at UTMB and European women racing in the U.S.). This piece to the puzzle is actually pretty straightforward in my mind. Ultrarunning is a male-dominated sport around the world (in terms of numbers of participants), but not nearly as much so in North America as in Europe. The percentage of female racers in many top-level ultras in the U.S. has grown into the range of 20 to 30% of total participants. In most European races, including UTMB, the percentage is below 10%. At UTMB this year there were 12.8 male finishers for every 1 female. In comparison, Western States this year had 4.4 men for every woman. This isn’t meant to take anything away from what Rory Bosio, Krissy Moehl, and other American women have accomplished at UTMB, but there is a simple reality that there is a much larger gender gap (in terms of numbers participating in the sport) in Europe than there is here in the U.S. This is certainly not isolated to ultrarunning. American women outperform their international counterparts in many more sports than American men do. Whatever the reasons, it’s an undeniable reality that the United States is well ahead of the rest of the world in terms of female participation in athletics, especially in niche and relatively new sports like trail running.

This said, it’s hard to ignore that for the second year in a row at UTMB, Rory Bosio not only finished ahead of all the women in the field, but also finished ahead of nearly every American runner, male or female. I have no definitive answer as to why this happened. Only that she has run two really amazing races on a course that she seems to have perfectly figured out. She clearly has a confidence on this course that few, if any, American men have been able to find. This confidence certainly is a result of many factors, but it’s no stretch to assume that the above-mentioned gender gap in European ultrarunning has played a good bit into building this confidence. If you sit down and watch all of the iRunFar pre-race interviews from the last two years, it’s really easy to notice a laid back, relaxed, and seemingly confident energy in Rory that you just don’t find in the American men. Much of this is simply that this is her style, but some of it must also be a function of the reality that there is more focus (from media, the race organization, and race fans) on the men’s division of this event (as compared to top-level events in the U.S.) as a result of the huge gender gap in participation in this event.

Course-Specific Challenges

There has been much talk about the UTMB course itself, and how some of the specific challenges of this course might not suit the American runners. Personally I think many of these points have been over blown and over analyzed. UTMB is a tough, mountainous, challenging course, but it is not any more so than the handful of most challenging 100 milers here in North America. We can discuss all day the various aspects of a course like UTMB and how it compares to a course like Hardrock or even Wasatch, Leadville, the Bear, H.U.R.T., Cascade Crest, and more, but the truth is that if you are capable of running really well on any of these courses, you should be able to run quite well on all of them.

This said, I do think there are a few possible aspects of this course which might pose a bit more of a challenge to American runners who aren’t used to the course than they do to European runners who presumably run the course (or similar terrain) more often. Pretty much every American 100 miler that has more than 20,000 feet of vertical gain is almost entirely on trail and/or dirt road. In addition to this, pretty much all of these races begin with a large climb just as soon as the race starts. UTMB on the other hand has countless stretches of black top, cobblestone, and concrete surface that likely adds up to 30% or more of the course. It also does not start out with a large climb. Much the opposite, it starts out on a paved path that is essentially flat. The first 20 miles of UTMB is almost entirely runnable, such that when you hit Les Contamines you feel more like you just ran a 20-mile race than you do like you just ran the first 20 miles of a 100 miler. You could of course simply choose to go out nice and slow, like we are all used to being forced into doing by the terrain in most mountain hundreds in North America. The problem with this is that you can’t afford to give up that much time, and more importantly that many places. Running through Les Contamines in 5oth place and 30 minutes behind the leaders is a great strategy if you are trying to sneak into the top 10, but if you are running to win, it just isn’t a strategy that is going to work. There are simply too many runners ahead of you at that point. Nearly every year the eventual winner of this race is near the front of the pack 20 miles into the race.

This combination of a much-harder surface than comparable hundreds in the U.S. and the necessity to run (as opposed to powerhike) nearly all of the first 20 miles of the race are the two things which I think are the most challenging for an American runner who might only be used to American races. Neither of these factors pose an insurmountable challenge, but if not taken seriously and prepared for ahead of time, they can and often do lead to very serious muscle attrition way too early in the race.

Home-Field Advantage

Another factor that I think it would be crazy to ignore is the home-field advantage that takes place in UTMB, or any competition that someone travels to another continent to take part in. Whether it’s a result of the travel/jet lag, time difference, different foods, being in an unfamiliar culture, sleep disruption, or differences in course terrain, there is an undeniable disadvantage (in comparison to a local runner) to traveling several thousand miles to run a race. Athletic competition is all about confidence, and confidence is greatly increased by familiarity. If you don’t think these things play a large role in athletic performance then it might be worth considering just how skewed the numbers in winning percentage are for home teams versus away teams in major professional sports. Whether it’s baseball, basketball, football, or hockey, nearly every team performs better at home than they do on the road. It would only stand to reason that the home-field advantage would be even greater in the case of runners traveling abroad to race UTMB. In the above-mentioned team sports, players are traveling to somewhat unfamiliar places around their own continent that they have all been to before for previous competitions, whereas Americans going to race UTMB are traveling across the Atlantic Ocean to a place that many of them have never been. To expect any group of athletes to perform as well in this situation as they do in races at home is just something which is never going to happen on a widespread basis. Sure, there will always be a few outliers (e.g. Rory and Mike Foote who have each likely run their best two hundreds ever at UTMB), just as there are always a few outliers in professional sports who win at a higher rate on the road than at home, but over the course of time it just isn’t realistic to expect any group of athletes to perform as well on the road as they do at home.

The other factor which likely gives the home team a little extra advantage are their fans/spectators cheering. This is certainly not a measurable quantity, but if you’ve ever been to a major sporting event with a large crowd, it’s hard to deny that it is an advantage for the home team who the vast majority of those fans are there to support and root for. In trail running, there generally aren’t large-enough crowds to make a huge difference in this regard, but UTMB is one race in which it is very easy to make the argument that the tens of thousands of fans out on the course throughout the race do make a tangible difference in how well individual athletes perform. The amount of fan support and participation completely dwarfs anything in the U.S., and without question the vast majority of these fans are rooting first and foremost for their European peers.

The Salomon Factor

This all of course brings us back to the original question as to why European men have seemingly performed better in the United States than American men have in Europe? If being the away team is such an undeniable disadvantage, why doesn’t it seem as though the Europeans have been nearly as affected by being on the road?

One answer to this question lies in what I think might be the most overlooked piece to this entire puzzle: the Salomon Factor. If you consider for a moment the international runners who have had a high level of success in the United States in recent years, you quickly discover that it’s not that they are European specifically, but that they are sponsored by Salomon. (Anna Frost and Ryan Sandes are great examples of non-European international runners who have had great success in the U.S. They are of course both sponsored by Salomon.) I mentioned above that familiarity is a huge part of building confidence, and that lack of confidence is why athletes tend to perform worse on the road than they do at home. Salomon is by far the most organized ultrarunning team in the world. It might even be accurate to go as far as to say they are the only ultrarunning ‘team’ in the world. By this I mean that they are the only team that has a consistent entourage that travels with many of their racers to various races around the world. When you travel half way around the world by yourself to take part in a race that is in a country and a culture that you are almost entirely unfamiliar with, it’s going to be a lot harder to feel the confidence of familiarity as compared to a runner who travels to a race in a far-away country as part of an entourage that typically includes several other runners, a team manager, a team physical therapist, a team photographer, and at least two or three other folks who I’m not even sure what their titles would be. Certainly this doesn’t eliminate the home-field advantage, but it sure goes a long way in minimizing it. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that it’s not actually that European runners have dominated American runners in international competition over the past few years, but rather that Salomon runners have dominated all other runners in the sport, and it just so happens that they primarily sponsor European runners, and have very few Americans on their international team. This may sound like a bold concession for a Montrail-sponsored runner to make, and I don’t mean this as a criticism of any sponsor that is not Salomon, but instead maybe as a piece of advice/suggestion. Salomon has made it obvious that getting the most out of your athletes is not just about getting the best runners in the sport to run for you, but instead about doing everything you can to put your runners in position to feel as familiar and as confident as possible when traveling to races. Salomon is the only ‘team’ in the sport that is currently playing the game in this manner and as long as that remains the case they are almost certainly going to continue to dominate big international races as they have over the past five years.

Small Sample

In conclusion, I think it is absolutely worth noting that everything I am talking about in this article is a small-enough sample that there is certainly the chance for a randomness/bad-luck factor to all of it. Several American men have run UTMB in the last five years who could have won that race if things came together just right on race day. Anyone who has raced enough knows that sometimes things just don’t come together on race day. Is it possible that American men have simply had a lot of bad luck in this race? It seems unlikely that these above-mentioned factors have not played at least partially into things, but I do believe that the sample size is still too small to make any certain conclusions. Sooner or later an American man will win this race, but with each passing year it seems less and less random, and more and more a function of the things mentioned in this article. I guess time will tell how real any of this is. Rob Krar might win UTMB in 2015 and this conversation will seem like a moot point. Oh wait, isn’t Rob Krar Canadian?

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • What is your reaction to Geoff’s arguments here about some of the possibilities as to why Rory Bosio and François D’Haene won this year’s UTMB?
  • And what are your thoughts on Geoff’s points about why European (or Salomon) runners do so well in whatever races they travel to?
Geoff Roes
Geoff Roes has set numerous ultramarathon course records including the Western States and Wasatch 100 milers. Salomon, Clif, Drymax, Ryders Eyewear, and Atlas Snowshoes all support Geoff's running. You can read more about his running on his blog Fumbling Towards Endurance and join him at his Alaska Mountain Ultrarunning Camps.