France’s Mathieu Blanchard finished third at the 2021 UTMB, a breakout performance on the world stage. In the following interview, our first with Mathieu, he talks about what his unusual path toward ultrarunning was, how he’s improved over the last three years to land on the UTMB podium, what his race-day strategy was, and how the race unfolded in his eyes.
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.
Mathieu Blanchard Post-2021 UTMB Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Meghan Hicks of iRunFar. I’m with Mathieu Blanchard. It’s the day after the 2021 UTMB where you finished third place. Congratulations. What a day.
Mathieu Blanchard: Thank you very much. It was yesterday, actually. And hopefully I have a lot of pain in my legs to realize what happened because it’s very difficult for me to realize what happened yesterday.
iRunFar: You said as we were walking to do this interview, you are on a cloud today.
Blanchard: I am on the cloud today. I’m, I have a kind of fluffiness. Everything is perfect today. I’m full happy and I don’t need anything.
iRunFar: You don’t need anything. I love that.
Blanchard: I don’t need anything. I’m super happy. My family’s with me. I received thousands of messages on my social networks with a lot of love, and it’s beautiful, this day. You see. Sunny as well. So this is the perfect day for me.
iRunFar: It’s been a perfect weekend for you. This is iRunFar’s first interview with you so I’d love to know a little bit about you. Do you live in Canada?
Blanchard: I moved in Canada in 2014 for an engineering opportunity.
Blanchard: I was an engineer. And I’m still in Canada. But now you know, as elite runner, I need, I travel a lot for the races. And I decided to adopt a way of life where I go from a race to another and I stay a long time there. So sometimes I will stay one month around the race and then I will go in another country for another race. So I still live in Canada, but it’s more my base camp. I have another base camp in the south of France in my family house.
iRunFar: So you were born in the south of France. And seven years ago, you moved to Canada. And where in Canada is your base camp?
Blanchard: I’m in Montreal downtown. But now I will go back in Montreal this winter. But I think I will move from the city because I want to live more in nature. So I still have my apartment in Montreal but for sure I will move this winter in the cabin somewhere in the woods.
iRunFar: Somewhere out into the woods of Canada.
iRunFar: Okay, so I think iRunFar first learned about you and met you in 2017 when you came to iRunFar’s hometown in Moab, Utah as part of Solomon’s trail running camp. Can you talk about your history with running?
Blanchard: Actually, I’m a baby runner. I started to run in 2014. When I moved in Canada, I come from the ocean. My parents moved in Guadeloupe, one of the French islands in the Caribbean. They went there to build a diving center. So I started my life there. The first three years of my life. And then my sport life was in the ocean. I did scuba diving. So now I’m a scuba-diving instructor. Kite surfing, surfing, windsurfing. And I love the sports with adrenaline and using that. For me, endurance sports, I didn’t like that. I didn’t understand why people do that for suffering just for nothing.
Blanchard: And when I arrived in Montreal, it was difficult for me to do scuba diving and kite surfing. And I’ve done my engineering school in my early career, I did a lot of partying and I was not my best health. So I decided to start sport again in Montreal. And like everybody on Sunday, I took my running shoes and I started to run to get better health. And it was for me a transition sport to find the good sport with adrenaline I will have in Canada. But I fall in love with running. And I didn’t know anything about running and anything about trails. So I just started to run on road. And my passion from 2014 to 2016 was to do all the big marathonss. So I went in Boston, New York, Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, did all these big marathons around. And in 2016, one of my friends proposed me to run a trail running race. It was a 20k in Quebec in Canada and I fall in love a second time with another sport, which is a little bit different, which is trail running. And at the end of the year in 2016, I did my first ultra trail. It was an 80k, Ultra-Trail Harricana, which was one of the Ultra-Trail World Tour, in September. And I remember in December, I saw a post of François D’Haene on Facebook, because I just discovered all this guy when I started this trail, or the video on YouTube. And I saw this video of UTMB and I said, “One day, I want to do that.”
Blanchard: And I do this ultra-trail race, and I finished first. And then in December, when I saw the post of François proposing the Salomon Trail Running Academy, and I was like, I’m not the guy for that. I ran only one race, one trail race. And we had a lot of questions from Salomon. How do you say, as a runner? What is an adventure day for you? What is the most inspiring runner for you? Lots of questions. I was like, I will not do it. And during the night, I thought of these questions, and on the morning, I had all the answers. And I decided to fill up the form. I send it to Salomon and then I forgot totally. And in the end of February 2017, I received an email from Salomon saying that I was one with the selection of the Salomon Trail Running Academy, and I remember I was in my engineering office, and I jump and scream in the office and everybody looked at me like, “What is happening?” And I was in the Salomon Trail Running Academy. And after that, they fully explained to me that they didn’t look for a really good or elite runner, but people with potential, has the pure performance potential and as well a personality. We had to send a video as well. And we, the energy we offer and then this is why they took me like the other. And we were seven men and seven women. So 14. We spent one week in March in Moab. And at the end of the week, they, they took only one guy and one woman to offer them a kind of sponsorship contract. And I was the guy.
Blanchard: My ultra-trail running career for me started in March 2017.
iRunFar: Interestingly, though, in only 2018 you ran UTMB, 100 miles for the first time. It was a fast progression for you.
Blanchard: Yeah, but I think that the fact that I did the three years of marathon on the road. It’s super hard on the body and on the mountain and I think it’s a good school to learn running. And then in 2017 I did my first 100 miles in July. This is, I think the easiest 100 miles in the world because it’s on a gravel road. Not a lot of elevation, 5,000 meters elevation on 100 miles, very runnable. So this is where I got the points to register to UTMB. And then the next year I went in UTMB as a baby ultra-trail runner.
iRunFar: Even though you were as you say a young trail runner, you still came I believe 13th that year.
Blanchard: Yes, 13th.
iRunFar: Not such a bad performance for your first UTMB.
Blanchard: Yes, I was lucky enough, this time that lots of elite runners dropped during the race. It was a crazier year as the weather we got on the Col du Bonhomme. Like wind, snow, rain. It was super cold and lots of runners dropped and this is the UTMB as every year. They got a huge fight during the night or the night and at Courmayeur, yeah, lots of runner stopped the race. Kilian [Jornet] and Jim [Walmsley] and all the best stop there. And the outsider like me are not far behind. Ready to get the place on any…
iRunFar: Ready to pounce.
Blanchard: Exactly. To pass them and this is what happened.
iRunFar: So three years later after finishing 13th at the 2018 UTMB, now you finish 10 places higher and on the podium. To what do you attribute your huge improvement in three years?
Blanchard: Two things. First, I worked a lot since 2018. As a runner, I learned a lot because now I am in the Salomon team. And I learned a lot from the team manager, Greg Vollet. But the other athletes François and Kilian and I have the chance to discuss with them and they offer me lots of advice that are really good. And I think as an engineer, I love to learn. I learned fast. And I think I have read all the books about performance, running, nutrition, ultra endurance, and I learned a lot. And then I applied this theory on me. And I tried and then day after day I improve. And the other things is that in 2019, in January, I decided to do a big move in my life. It was to stop my engineering work. Actually, I didn’t quit the engineering work, because I love engineering. It’s like resolve a problem every day. But the I quit the classic work organization. You know, when you have to work from Monday to Friday, from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. every day. And if I wanted to improve my potential as a runner, I had to stop that because as an ultrarunner you have to adapt to your, your calendar, your week. If I want to train early in the morning, and then I want to sleep, I have to do that, you know. So I stopped there, I stopped this. It’s crazy. My family was not super fun with that.
Blanchard: But they saw in my eyes, the stars, that I want to try something in this sport, because I’m so passionate about that. And I think I have a potential to improve and I am still improving my level. Every day I train, I feel better than the day before. So I stopped and I now work for the Running Clinic, which is a big company on training for health professionals. And we have the particularity to have the, we can adapt our calendar. So if I want to work on Sunday, on Saturday during the night, that what I want. But there is running now in my life first and I can organize around this. And this is one of the reasons I improved a lot in the last three years.
iRunFar: Very good. Let’s talk for a moment about how the race went on Friday and Saturday. It looked like for maybe the first marathon, 40 kilometers, you were very calm. You were kind of staying back, staying in contact with the leaders but staying relaxed. Is that how it was for you?
Blanchard: Exactly. And it was a choice. Usually I’m more an aggressive runner. I run in the front and I control the race in the front. This is where I’m comfortable. This is how I run. But this time I knew that I was in my best shape in my life ever for UTMB. Because the last six months, I was lucky enough to train without any injury, without any problem. And I did all my training every day. I slept, I slept well. I eat well, I thought well, so I talk with Greg Vollet, which is the team manager of Salomon, said, “Greg, I’m in my top shape. I want to do something in this UTMB. I have it in my, in I head. What do I have to do?” And we just get together and he manages as well François.
Blanchard: So he knew exactly what the strategy of François was. And we will not go in the accurate strategy but he proposed me to run behind and controlling the time difference between François. For example at Saint-Gervais I had to arrive 15 minutes behind François, and then in Les Contamines 20 minutes and in Courmayeur one hour. So it was the first time for me running at the back and controlling this time. And it was perfect actually.
Blanchard: It was perfect, perfect for me because I felt good all the race and it’s crazy because it’s paradoxical, I felt better all the other race, I think it was a kind of negative split, no? I felt better the second part than the first part. It’s great to feel this, this sensation like the energy, it’s steady. You can accelerate, you can attack in the uphill even at the last uphill. And yes, this is how I manage the race and it works well.
iRunFar: It appeared that maybe around 50 kilometers into the race, maybe Les Chapeiux or Col de la Siegne, you went from being a bit further back in the top 20 to inside of the top 10. Were you aware of your positioning and gradually getting closer? Or were you just trying to manage yourself the whole time?
Blanchard: I try to just manage the strategy I had, it was the different time with François with the front of the race. And I didn’t know anything about my position. And in one of the mountains, I don’t remember which one, somebody told me, “Matt, you are seventh.” And I thought I was still 13th. Because I passed people who were maybe, who dropped already. A lot of people dropped in the first 40k. And I passed a lot of runners as well in the aid station. Because one of my strategy this year, I never did that before, was to never spend more than one minute in each aid station.
iRunFar: Very good.
Blanchard: In 2018, I stayed 12 minutes in Courmayeur. So and then, in this race, I never stopped more than one minute in each aid station. And when you arrive in the aid station, there are lots of people and you don’t see where are all the runners and sometimes you pass, you pass one, tow, three, four, five runners in aid station and you don’t see it.
iRunFar: You don’t know.
Blanchard: So then you, when you learn it. I feed myself with this energy when I knew the position and when I passed all these runners who inspired me a lot my life, like, like Jim, like Pablo Villa, like Dmitry [Mityaev] the Russian guy. And when I arrived behind them and passed them I had a good word for them for sure. But I was like, whoa, passing these guys, crazy. And I fed myself with this energy and it brings me to where I arrived at the finish line.
iRunFar: Where did you find out you were in the position to podium at UTMB? Where did you ever learn that while you were out there?
Blanchard: Yeah, actually, when I get down from Grand Col Ferret, on the way to La Fouly, I met Greg Vollet at La Fouly and he told me that François, Aurélien [Dunand-Pallaz], and Germain [Grangier] were in front of me. And the three guys felt very bad. François has cramps in his muscle. And Aurélien and Germain didn’t look good. So he said to me, Matt, you look so fresh compared to them. We are at 110k, there are still 70k to the end. You have, you have something to do today. So this is the first moment I thought that maybe I could get to the podium. But it was unexpected for me. And I tried to stay calm when he told me that because with the adrenaline you can start to run too fast. And to explore that to blow out as well. So I started to run stronger and stronger. And I got on Germain on the uphill after Champex.
Blanchard: He was totally done. And this is why I get to the podium. And then it was not finished because Greg told me that François felt very bad so maybe he will, even if he’s amazing, he’s still an human so I saw him sometimes in Diagonale des Fous with cramps and it was only, he almost dropped the race so maybe François could drop as well. Yesterday and Aurélien felt super bad at Champex. We are 25 minutes difference. And I went up to seven minutes difference so in my head was like, imagine if François dropped and I get on Aurélien and finished first. What, crazy!
Blanchard: So I tried to didn’t think about it, but it was a little bit in my head. But then at the end I pushed, I pushed, I pushed a lot to try to get on them. But with the low lucidity I started to make mistake like my ankle, you know. And it was like, Matt, you at third at UTMB, you know, the UTMB. This is the Olympic games, the final world cup in trail running. You should control in your podium and finish like that, and it will be the best day for you.
iRunFar: Did you allow yourself like maybe the distance from La Flégère or coming through town? Did you let yourself sort of stop playing the game and just soak in the experience of finishing third?
Blanchard: I think the first time I realized it and I accepted it was on the downhill to Vallorcine because I felt about, the for the fact that you know, you split the race, aid station. And I thought about the finish line and maybe on the podium. And my stomach was like, I start, I start crying. I was like, no, no, no, don’t do it. Don’t do it. Don’t think about it.
iRunFar: Too early.
Blanchard: Too early, at Vallorcine. And it happened a second time at the last downhill again, this, this feeling in the, in the stomach and I still, and I cried second time. But I was like, no, no, no, you’re not at that finish line. The finish line is the finish line. And when I arrived, all the people cheering at me. I felt like the vibration here was crazy. And this is the second time I cried in my life at the at the end of the race. The first time was at UTMB as well in 2018 because I finished the race with my young brother who had an accident a few months before the race. And he almost died in the accident and he lost a leg and with the prosthetic. And the UTMB organizers were okay to let him run with me at the end of the race.
iRunFar: Oh, wow.
Blanchard: And I was running with him only a few months after his accident. And it was the first time he showed him at the public showing his prosthetic actually and it was a lot. We had a lot of emotions for me and my family. And we cried. And this time I cried again because I saw François at the finish line like looking at me. And he arrived and he took my hand, and he bring up my, my hand. And I remember, the finish line was Kilian, and he did exactly the same in 2017.
iRunFar: 2017, yep.
Blanchard: And it was like well, François is getting my hand like Kilian. I’m on the podium. And I cried.
iRunFar: That’s amazing. I think that’s a wonderful way to end this interview. Congratulations to you on your third place at the 2021 UTMB, Mathieu.
Blanchard: Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you for the community and this is the stuff of a big dream and I hope a new dream will arrive in the short future.
iRunFar: I love it.