Mathieu Blanchard, from France but living in Canada, took second at the 2022 UTMB, challenging champion Kilian Jornet for the win in the process of doing so. In the following interview, Mathieu talks about how taking third last year gave him the confidence to push a little harder this year, how he used his strategy of starting easy so he could push later, and how his late-race duel with Jornet went from his perspective.
For more on how this year’s UTMB unfolded, read our 2022 UTMB results article.
Mathieu Blanchard Post-2022 UTMB Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Meghan Hicks of iRunFar. I’m with Mathieu Blanchard. It’s a couple, no, it’s just a couple of hours after the 2022 UTMB. You finished second place. Congratulations.
Mathieu Blanchard: Thank you.
iRunFar: You had an incredible race. You challenged for the win yesterday. How, and that’s following up on a podium last year. How are you feeling at this moment?
Blanchard: I feel again, I think I said exactly the same, on the cloud. Today, it’s difficult to realize, first, to race the greatest athletes of all time, you know. When I started, ultra-trail running five years ago in 2017, I started to discover this activity with Kilian [Jornet] because I went on Google looking for what like trail, ultra-trail. And at this time, I found lots of video of Kilian running all the biggest races in the world. Winning all the biggest races in the world, and running on all the biggest, the highest mountains in the course record everywhere in the world. And it’s the guy who inspired me a lot.
I bought the book as well, the first book he did, I guess, “Run or Die,” or Die or Run, whichever. And I read, I read all the stories of Kilian and I, at this time was like, wow. He inspired me a lot. But if someone, if someone told me, you know, “Matt, now you are reading the book of Kilian and in five years, you will fight against him on one of the biggest ultra-trail races in the world, at UTMB,” I think I, I couldn’t believe the person who told it to me.
Blanchard: And then yes, I finished the run, so it’s a podium again, for sure, it’s great. And at the end, crazy. But my time I targeted was 21 hours, from last year I did 21 and approximately 15 minutes. So I build my strategy around 21:00. And maybe, if possible, going under 21:00 will be crazy. But this time we run under 20:00. And the third thing’s crazy that happened on this race.
iRunFar: I want to ask you how you felt starting this race this year. What was it like to return after, yeah, podiuming last year, running 21:00? Did you come thinking, “I want to try to protect a podium position. I want to try to race aggressively and see what my maximum potential is?” Yeah. What did you think coming into this race?
Blanchard: I think last year I built great confidence with UTMB. Because I felt very good the whole race. And when I arrived at the finish line, I felt very good. I was like when the speaker asked me questions, I was like, okay, I still have plenty of energy, if you want I can do for the second loop.
iRunFar: [laughs] Second loop.
Blanchard: And I think it helps me the month after the race to, to continue to train and to believe that I can, I can do something faster on this race. About the podium is difficult because it depends with the other athletes if they are able to run fast or not. Because on some edition running 21:00, you can win UTMB. But in the other edition, if you ran 21:30, you finish five or six out of ten. So it depends, the other. But for sure this year, I train a lot.
I train more than last year actually, as I started five years ago, every year, I improve my level because I’m still young, so I have plenty of spaces to progress and to improve my level. And again this year, I trained more than last year. I trained better, with more volume, with more specificity so for sure. When I arrived at the finish line with the confidence I built with the last edition plus the training I made this year, I was really confident that I could beat my time and I can run fast. And this is a good thing to arrive on the start line very confident because it plays a lot in the head more than the body in this kind of race. Yeah.
iRunFar: It seemed like in the first half of the race you use sort of the same strategy as last year of trying to go calmly, staying behind the leaders and then, I don’t know if attacking is the right word, but trying to move up later. Maybe more aggressively so this year?
Blanchard: This is exactly the same. When the strategy works, don’t change it.
Blanchard: So last year, the strategy I made was to, to run with some comfort. I mean, manageable comfort from the start line to Courmayeur.
Blanchard: And then from Courmayeur feeling and try to push to the end. So I put time, I tried to target time on each aid station. And if I arrived a little bit early on the time, I came down a little bit. And if I arrived a little bit late, I tried to push a little bit more. And this is what I did. And as you said, this is exactly what I did this year. I put times more aggressive from Chamonix to Courmayeur, to go around 21. And then, and then start to run more aggressively and more out of comfort from Courmayeur. But it was [laughs] really more than out of comfort when I get to Kilian because this is, this was not the scenario I was thinking about.
Blanchard: This is the race as well. Sometimes things happen. You have to adapt and you have to take it as happening.
iRunFar: You seemed to make an incredible move on the field sort of from Grand Col Ferret through after Champex-Lac where you caught up all your time. And then you were just there, now racing Kilian for the win.
Blanchard: Yeah, I felt so good from Grand Col Ferret. I was with Pau Capell and Thibaut Garrivier. And we made a group and I think we helped each other to push a lot. And I don’t know why but maybe I felt a little bit better. I went in front of them right after Lac Combal. I was worried, very fast as usual in the aid station. And when I arrived at Courmayeur, I think I was fifth. And my crew told me that Jim [Walmsley] and Kilian are pretty good in front, 15 minutes. And Tom Evans and Zach Miller were good as well but a little bit more tired, but good.
So in my head, I was like, “Okay, it’s exactly the same scenario as last year.” I arrived in Courmayeur, very fresh, very confident, mentally. So the scenario is identical. Last year I arrived sixth and the people in front of me, it was Jeremy, no sorry, Jim Walmsley. And Pablo Villa. My crew told me, “Oh, they felt very bad at Courmayeur. Yeah, so maybe you will be able to catch them soon.”
And this is exactly what I said. “Okay, I’m fresh and Tom and Zach will be tired. So maybe I can catch them, catch them from Bertone to Arnouvaz. And I think I catch them on the almost identical place as Jim and Pablo last year. So, but this time when I catch them, I passed third. So virtually on the podium very soon. Because last year, I passed fourth when I passed Pablo and Jim. So I was able to get the boost you have in your head when you are virtually on the podium.
It’s really, it’s crazy, actually. You’ll feel good. But when you pass, actually for me on the virtual podium, it gives you a crazy boost and I was able to continue to push to maybe get on Kilian and Jim. But for me, I was like, okay, in front of me, Kilian. I’m not sure I will be able to catch on them. But I know how Jim runs, sometimes not managing well, the intensity. So we are this time at 100k. We still have 70k. And we think it’s possible. So I kept pushing and the end of the story was, yeah, crazy.
iRunFar: Let’s talk about the end of that story. Is it a little before Vallorcine that you find yourself sharing the lead basically with Kilian? Jim Walmsley is now behind you. Can you talk about that battle and how, yeah, how did that go? And how are you feeling? Like from iRunFar’s vision, it seemed like you were just able to work as hard as you could there. Your body was doing what you wanted to.
Blanchard: Yeah, it’s a nice story actually, after La Fouly, so, 110k, 120k my team manager told me that Kilian has trouble and that maybe he will drop because don’t feel good and everything. So I caught Kilian very fast from La Fouly. And I arrived behind him very fast and he was like almost walking.
So it was like in my head, “Okay, for sure he will drop.” So I arrived right behind Kilian and for me keeping on Kilian, it’s for me, I have too much respect to him to pass him like that very fast. So I stopped and I was like, “Okay, Kilian, how are you? Are you good? Do you need something? I’m so sorry. It’s the race. But I will have to continue.”
“No worries, Matt. Continue to your race, blah, blah, blah.” And okay, so I started to run stronger. And a few minutes before he was almost walking, but now he was catching on me. It was like, what is he doing?
iRunFar: What happened to you, buddy?
Blanchard: You didn’t run for a long time because I catch on you. I took on you 10 minutes in length in less than 10k. It’s crazy. And actually, at the end, we discuss a little bit. And what happened is that Kilian had trouble. Everybody thought it was physically, but it was not physically. It was mentally. It was mentally because he ran hard with Jim all the way and right before the downhill to Arnouvaz.
Jim started to do this, his usual business, changing the intensity very fast, and he ran super fast downhill to Arnouvaz. And again, he pushed on the uphill to Grand Col Ferret. And Kilian was like, “Okay, I’m not able to keep on it, so I have a problem.” But the problem was not Kilian. And it was Jim who ran too strong.
iRunFar: Going harder.
Blanchard: Going harder.
Blanchard: So Kilian was like, “Okay, today I’m not enough good physically to, to keep him and I’m bad and it’s difficult, and blah blah blah,” and then Jim took him 10 minutes at La Fouly, from Arnouvaz to La Fouly and Kilian was like, “Okay, I’m really, really bad today.” But the problem was not him. And it was Jim who pushed too hard. And it gets back very, very soon.
At the bottom of the uphill of Champex, my team manager came and as we were together with Kilian, Kilian had the information as well, he told us, “Okay, from La Fouly to now it’s less than 10k. You took five minutes on Jim.” It’s crazy. Five minutes on less than 10k on Jim Walmsley, on the section pretty flat. And on the section where he should be very strong.
iRunFar: You would expect Jim to be strong.
Blanchard: So Kilian, in his head he was like, “Okay, okay, okay. I understand. So now, Jim was too fast. We are keeping a lot of time on him. And for sure, we will, we will catch him. So when we will catch him, I can start maybe fight with this guy with me.” I’m not sure. And this is what happens. We passed Champex.
And then right after Champex, they told me, “You keep again five minutes on Jim.” So soon enough we catch on him. And then as he build another confidence and he felt better mentally; it’s Kilian and he was able to do, to start another race with me. And what happens? He was very strong on the uphill. And actually no, he was stronger than me on the uphill and I wasn’t stronger, than, no. He was stronger than me on the uphill and I was stronger than him in the downhill.
Blanchard: And what is fun is that we had the exact time difference in each section. I mean, from Champex to the top of the mountain.
iRunFar: Just in a different, different sections.
Blanchard: He took on me four minutes. And then from the top, from Trient to the next aid station, I took four minutes. So it was the perfect balance. And we did it on each uphill and downhill. So when we arrive at Vallorcine, we didn’t discuss but I think in our head we were like, okay, only one uphill, one downhill.
iRunFar: [Laughs] Now what?
Blanchard: Now what. So in the aid station, it was very, the tension was really intense. And yes, we did a one-minute aid station. I think we get out from the aid station, sprinting. Sprinting out of the aid station. And he knew that he was better than me on the uphill and me for the downhill. So he pushed all the way to the top. He took me 10 minutes to the top. I took him five minutes in the downhill, but it was not enough, and he arrived five minutes in front of me.
iRunFar: However, you crossed the line, in second place. You ran more than an hour faster than last year. It’s an improvement in the number on the podium, but more important than that, it’s a huge improvement in performance. Do you think? Do you ever get to thinking of like, I don’t actually know what my potential is?
Blanchard: Yeah, this as it’s, everything is kind of new for me. Every year improving my level fast. I, I’m starting to believe that I can fight with the greatest in ultra-trail.
iRunFar: Well you should believe that, eh?
Blanchard: Yeah, but you can’t build the confidence in one month because in this sport, you have to be very humble if you want to win races. And if you want to have a long career. And this is what I learned with the book with Kilian, actually, so step by step. But no, for sure this time and this fight with Kilian give me a boost in my confidence, because you need the confidence in these kinds of races.
Because as I said, lots happens in the head. And in the head, there are plenty of things, but one of them is the confidence. And yeah, I hope that this crazy show we had in this UTMB will give me more confidence to maybe have the confidence to think that yes, maybe one day I can win UTMB. And this is what I will try to work on in the next month to build this.
iRunFar: Congratulations on your second-place finish at the 2022 UTMB. You put on a heck of a show yesterday.
Blanchard: Thank you I had a great time. And I hope that the public enjoyed the show as well as we enjoy it with Kilian.
iRunFar: I’m sure they did.