How to UTMB? Logistics for the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc

Kilian Jornet and three others talk about the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) course and gear.

By on August 13, 2010 | Comments

Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc smHere at iRunFar, the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc has been on our minds since last December. After numerous stops and starts, we’re beyond excited to announce that iRunFar’s Bryon Powell will be covering UTMB live two weeks from today. As with our Western States 100 coverage, you can expect pre- and post-race video interviews on iRunFar. We’ll also be cranking out live, from-the-course updates throughout the race on our Twitter feed, so be sure to become a follower of @iRunFar on Twitter.

As for this article, a few months back an iRunFar reader asked if we could help him prepare for his upcoming debut at UTMB as the 100-mile race through France, Italy, and Switzerland is known to many. With our love of logistics and with huge faith in our readership, we said, “YES!” He then passed along a set of questions that three iRunFar readers kindly answered.

While we’re excited to share our reader’s responses, we’re first going to share a couple other resources.

Kilian Jornet on UTMB
Before getting to our panel’s answers… we’ve got a bonus, a brief interview with two-time defending UTMB champion Kilian Jornet. He discusses race gear and training for the race.

[Please note that Kilian was my first interviewee at Western States, so this interview does not reflect some of the great iRF reader feedback I received on conducting interviews. ;-)]

Other Resources
Here are a couple great UTMB resources that we’ve found. As time goes by, we’ll add more UTMB resources. Please feel free to suggest additions by leaving a comment.

UTMB Questions Answered
Our UTMB panel consisted of three runners. Nick Yardley, who heads Julbo sunglasses North American operation, finished the 100k CCC UTMB-sister race last year and will be attempting UTMB itself this year. Mark Barnes, an outdoor store buyer in the UK, has two UTMB finishes to his credit (’06 & ’07) as well as failed tries at the related Petite Trotte à Léon in ’08 and in UTMB in ’09. After twice DNFing UTMB at Champex, Jonathan Steele finally finished the full UTMB in 2009.

We’ve compiled their answers to each of our questions. We begin be learning about the UTMB course and its aid stations before getting our panel’s opinion on gear for the race.

The Course

Difficulty of Climbs and Descents
iRunFar (iRF): Are the climbs really without switchbacks such that they are super steep calf killers? Likewise, are the descents straight down the mountain?

Nick Yardley (Nick): You are continually going either up or down with very little cruising on ridgelines. Some of the hills are very steep and never ending. Sticks really do help with this. The climbs do have switchbacks, but just not the lazy wide ones found in the Western US. The switchbacks tend to be tighter and steeper.

Mark Barnes (Mark): There are not as many switchbacks as you will be used to in the States. Calf muscles and quads beware! This might be another reason for poles.

Jonathan Steele (Jonathan): Quite often the climbs are straight up and down. Maybe one or two have switchbacks. However, most follow ski runs with descents that are again straight down following by long, tough climbs.

Technicality of Terrain
What is the condition of the trail? Is it rocky? Smooth? Runnable or not?

Nick: Most of the race is on the famed hiking trail known as the Tour du Mont Blanc. As a result, for the entire race, the trail is a very real and well-established trail that is in great condition and super fun to be on. Having said this, the course is the Alps. There are some very rocky sections (rouges mainly) that, if wet, are very slow going. (This one spots where sticks really help!) Outside of the big climbs, all is runnable and some is even smooth! However, most of the course is lightly rocky and requires your attention even when runnable.

Mark: The conditions of the course include well, everything. There’s singletrack, doubletrack, asphalt, rock, mud, grass, etc. Shoe selection isn’t easy.

Jonathan: Trail conditions are very good. They are very runnable with a couple of technical descents, but mainly shale type paths and dirt tracks. The Bovine section is a different matter. It’s basically a boulder field or two! I have run the race in The North Face Ultra 103s, Salomon XA Pros, and, last year, in Salomon XT Wings. This year, it will be Salomon XT Wings, again. Remember to take in the awesome views throughout the race.

Food and Drink on Course
What kind of food and drink is available at the aid stations?

Nick: The aid stations are well stocked and managed by a hoard of cheery and helpful staff. As Americans, some of the food choices may seem a bit different and, if you’re finicky, maybe hard to get used to. Most stations have sport drinks, water, soup, standard race snacks, plus lots of dried meat and cheese.

There are a few larger aid stations that really do things in style. Here, racers can have a full pasta meal, plus a wide variety of other foods. In the cold of the night, the hot sweet tea was a real godsend for me. It made all the difference.

Mark: The food varies at the checkpoints, but it usually includes bread, cheese, meat, fruit, soup, water, chocolate, biscuits, and Maxim energy drink.

Jonathan: The food at aid stations includes cuts of meat, cheese, bread, fruit, soup, energy bars, tea, coffee, coke, energy drink, water, chocalate, etc. At Cormanyeur, there’s pasta and BEER!!!!

To be honest, I never really noticed anything else. I’m a vegetarian and a celiac, so I tend to just use Hammer Nutrition’s Perpetum/Sustained Fuel and gels. From the aid stations, I would have fruit, tea and lots of Coke! A few other Brit runners who I talked to afterward didn’t touch the French/Swiss cold cut meats and cheese. It’s just too different from their usual race food! Keep in mind that not every aid station offers a full spread; some just have water!!

Crew Access at Checkpoints
At what checkpoints do crew have access to the runner?

Mark: St Gervais is the first point where you can see your crew. Meet at the barriers and sort stuff there. This is ok. There’s the same situation at Les Contamines. If your crew can get to Les Chapieux , they’ll again encounter a similar situation.

The first very easily accessible point is Courmayeur. Here, support is not allowed inside the checkpoint. Only racers are allowed in the checkpoint; however, you can access racers outside the station.

La Fouly is a good point where crews can access you directly at the checkpoint. At Champex, there should be separate racer and crew areas. Crews must wait in their designated area.

Trient is, then, probably the last place for crew access before Chamonix unless they want to take the cable car or trek up to Flegere. There is a very cost effective bus network put on by the race organisers that goes to all the accessible points. If you take the buses, you avoid having to drive through the night on unknown roads to relatively (in some cases) remote spots.

General Impression
What’s your general impression of the race?

Nick: The scene at UTMB is different than the USA, but it’s a wonderful eye opening experience. Held among great scenery, it is an extremely well managed event. As a teen and in my 20’s, I spent my summers climbing in Chamonix. It was surprisingly emotional to come back and run around my old playground and continually look over my left shoulder at all the routes I used to climb.

UTMB Gear/Kit Recommendations

Trekking Poles/Sticks
iRF: Would you recommend running the race with trekking poles?

Nick: These, in my mind, are a must. Krissy Moehl and Scott Jurek both used them last year. I picked up a pair of running poles in Chamonix. These are very light and are shock corded like tent poles and fold down very small. They’re much better, in my mind, than standard trekking poles. The poles are of most use for going up the may steep hills, less useful for the downs, and very useful on the rock hoping sections, especially if they’re wet.

Mark: Poles? Absolutely YES! Here in the UK they are not allowed under regulations for races, but for UTMB at least 90-95% of the participants use them. It’s the guys at the front that tend not to use them, but for the rest of us who don’t benefit from the ability to train as much as we would like and who don’t have big climbs and descents to train on, the poles are pretty much mandatory. Take a look at any of the videos of the event and most people use them. Your knees will thank you!

Jonathan: Poles? Defo! Top end runners and runners who train regularly in mountainous terrain can get away without them, but 98% of the field can’t be wrong. I use Leki Carbons. They’re worth forking out money and getting lightweight poles. Anti-shock poles add weight and don’t compact down that well, so avoid them! Get used to the poles before the UTMB by running with them. Unless you’re under 11 stone (154 pounds/70 kg) avoid Raidlight or similar poles, as they can break easy. I weigh 14-15 stone, (196-210 pounds/89-95 kg) so I will take any help up those climbs I can get.

iRF: What model of backpack (rucksack) would you recommend? Any particular size?

Nick: I used a Nathan Synergy pack and it worked great. Salomon packs are very popular and well thought out. Something to consider is that hydration bladder water gets really warm sitting on your back all day and filling a bag is awkward. With that in mind, a pack with 2 bottle sleeves may be a good idea. Chamonix has many outdoor shops that are all oriented to running at the time of the race and there is also a great race fair. It’s very easy to pick up a great new pack if you feel the need.

Mark: A 15-20 liter capacity pack will be fine. The volume can be even less if you benefit from the lighter kit available on the market. It’s hard to suggest any particular pack as we all have different preferences. For instance, does one prefer bottles or a hydration bladder? Does one prefer running belt pockets or a chest pouch?

Jonathan: I have used a The North Face Hammerhead and a Camelback Mule in previous years. This year, I will use an OMM Ultra 15. (OMM used to be KIMM, a UK make. Mark Barnes, above, helped design this pack for ultrarunning!) It’s very light and functional, fits 15 liters, and you can attach bottles or a front pouch. I recommend a 15-20 liter pack. Be sure not to carry a pack less than 10 liters or more than 25 liters with a front pouch or a small bumbag. Terra Nova and Salomon makes some excellent packs.

Lighting – Headlamps and No Flashlights
iRF: The race begins shortly before nightfall (6 pm local time) and many will be on the course for part of a second night. What lighting system would you recommend keeping in mind that carrying two lights is compulsory?

Nick: Don’t use a handheld torch. It doesn’t really work well with poles! I had no trouble running with a single headlamp. Everyone uses a single headlamp. The second light you need as a back up as you will run through the night and batteries die. The new Mammut headlamps are super light and small.

Mark: Most people, myself included, use a good single headtorch a carry the minimum size of backup torch. The paths are essentially good enough for this system to work.

Jonathan: Bring one decent headtorch, such as a Petzl Myo XP (or equivalent) and, of course, a backup. If you are using poles you wont have your hands free for a flashlight.

iRF: UTMB regulations require that you bring pants that go below your knees. What do you recommend?

Nick: Three quarter length-running knickers seem to be the euro thing. Don’t under estimate how cold it can get at night. Once the sun goes down in the Alps it can get seriously chilly. Hypothermia is a real consideration if you’re not careful.

Mark: For this piece of mandatory kit, go with 3/4 knickers. I know these will pass scrutiny. If the weather is in line with the last few years, you won’t use them, but you must have them anyway.

Jonathan: In 2006 and 2007, I ran in 3/4 tights. Last year, I ran in Skins shorts  and carried a light pair of windproof Inov-8 trousers. I found it freezing at Champex at night, so this year I will wear Skins shorts and carry full-length Salomon tights. That’s just my preference, but I reckon a pair of 3/4 tights is best for most people!

Gear Details – Cups
iRF: What would you recommend for the compulsory cup on the course?

Nick: This is part of the required list and there is a size minimum. They sell plenty of appropriate ones at the fair. A cheap and light cup that clips or stuffs easy into your pack is what you want. It needs to be readily accessible on the outside, as you’ll need it as you enter aid stations for drinks. It also works great for scooping cold water over your head at various water troughs on route. This is such a great idea that saves on so many paper cups.

Mark: A cup is a mandatory piece of equipment. As such, don’t try to leave it out even though it seems superfluous. You may have either a bottle or a bladder , but the cup must still go. One of the better choices is the Raidlight Eco Cup.

Jonathan: I believe you can buy folding cups in Chamonix before the race. I know Raidlight sells them. I bought a collapsible cup made by a company called ‘Sea to Summit.’ If using a front pouch on your bag, defo store it there.

Gear Details – Race Number Attachment
iRF: How would you recommend attaching your race bib given the need to add and remove layers through the race?

Nick: I used safety pins. It’s not a great solution, but I couldn’t think of anything better. The bib has your emergency contact name and phone number right on it. That makes you gulp! On the other hand, the bib has your name and the flag of your country. It was great to run through small villages and have all the kids yell “Go USA!”

Mark: The organisation gives you a thin piece of elastic, but this isn’t great. Quite a few people get hold of one of the Ironman style number carrier belts. I use a chest pouch and pin my number there, so I haven’t encountered any problem.

Jonathan: As for the race numbers, you have to pin them on your front. The race organizers are quite strict with this, so I ended up moving it on and off layers. I’m probably not the best person for this question.

Gear Details – Survival Blanket
What kind of survival blanket have people brought? (i.e., what is the lightest people have found?)

Nick: I brought the cheapest and lightest I could find.

Mark: My weapon of choice here is the Adventure Medical Kits Heatsheets Emergency Bivvy.

Jonathan: The survival blanket actually has to be a survival bag. I use a very lightweight bag.

Call for Comments and Questions
Have you run UTMB, CCC, or one of the other associated events? If so, please share your experiences. If you’ve got general questions about the race, please ask away. We’re confident some of our readers can provide you with solid info.

Bryon Powell

Bryon Powell is the Founding Editor of iRunFar. He’s been writing about trail running, ultrarunning, and running gear for more than 15 years. Aside from iRunFar, he’s authored the books Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons and Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running, been a contributing editor at Trail Runner magazine, written for publications including Outside, Sierra, and Running Times, and coached ultrarunners of all abilities. Based in Silverton, Colorado, Bryon is an avid trail runner and ultrarunner who competes in events from the Hardrock 100 Mile just out his front door to races long and short around the world, that is, when he’s not fly fishing or tending to his garden.