Stories from the UTMB Races Through the Lens of Data

Using data to look at some remarkable stories from the various UTMB races through the years.

By on August 24, 2023 | Comments

The power of data is that it gives us evidence and inputs that inform our views and decisions. Data allows us to move beyond anecdotes and gut feelings. Sometimes the data confirms what we previously suspected, and other times it gives us entirely new insights.

Historically, we have looked at aggregated data for this column. It’s enabled us to discuss trends across multiple years, races, and runners. This month, we are using data to discuss individual runners.

With UTMB and the UTMB Mont Blanc festival just around the corner, we picked some stories related to that group of races where we think the data allows for a deeper appreciation of someone’s performance — whether that performance was one you already knew was impressive, or it’s an entirely new insight.

[Editor’s Note: We kindly remind readers that the Running the Numbers column is a just-for-fun analysis. While we always endeavor to analyze accurately, we limit the scope of each article in order to make the work doable for author Mallory Richard, and the results digestible for readers like you.]

Ildikó Wermescher and the 2022 TDS

Where do we start? Ildikó Wermescher is a Hungarian trail runner and ultrarunner who lives in Germany. She excels at mountainous races, but a previous top-10 finish at the Western States 100 proves she has leg speed on top of her endurance, climbing ability, and general toughness.

It’s challenging to pick a single performance to highlight Wermescher’s ability when it comes to long, difficult ultras. She won the 2022 Trail Andorra by UTMB 100k event, and placed third in 2023 — but improved on her previous time by some 28 minutes. Over that same period, she also boasted a win at the 2022 Istria by UTMB 110k, and podium finishes at Restonica Trail by UTMB 66k and Trail Alsace Grand Est by UTMB 110k.

Ildiko Wermescher - 2018 UTMB

Ildiko Wermescher at the 2018 UTMB. Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

Perhaps Wermescher’s most impressive performance at a UTMB race is her fifth-place finish at the 2022 TDS, which takes place during the UTMB Mont Blanc festival. The TDS runs for 145 kilometers (90 miles) from Courmayeur, Italy, to Chamonix, France, and is run on more technically challenging terrain than the slightly longer UTMB route. Wermescher finished behind four other elite athletes: winner Martina Valmassoi, Claudia Tremps, Katharina Hartmuth, and Julia Rezzi.

What made Wermescher’s result stand out is she was 57 years old on race day, placing her comfortably in the grandmasters (age 50-plus) age category. The DUV Ultra Marathon Statistics database estimated that Wermescher’s finishing time of 24:38:45 is the equivalent of 19:57:30 if the performance is age-graded. For context, Valmassoi’s winning time was 22:42:47.

The DUV website has a robust explanation for why and how it age grades runners’ times, citing research to explain that “an athlete of 55 years can achieve just 85% of the performance of a 30-year-old athlete.” I would encourage you to read the explanation for yourself because I’m not a physiologist, but I am a Wermescher fan.

Zachary Friedley at the Val d’Aran by UTMB Sky 15k

Zachary Friedley, a professional trail runner and founder of the non-profit Born to Adapt, became the first above-knee blade runner to start and finish the 2023 Val d’Aran by UTMB Sky 15k. A longtime athlete, the American took up trail running as an adult and has made it his mission to create opportunities for more adaptive athletes to discover trail running.

In 2022, he participated in the MCC at the UTMB Mont Blanc festival, which covers 40 kilometers (25 miles) with 2,300 meters (7,500 feet) of elevation gain, and he is currently preparing to participate in the race for the second time.

Zachary Friedley - 2023 Val d’Aran by UTMB Sky 15k

Zachary Friedley finishing the 2023 Val d’Aran by UTMB Sky 15k. Photo courtesy of Zachary Friedley.

The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs reports that approximately 15% of the global population lives with some form of disability. Persons with disabilities experience discrimination, barriers to joining the workforce, and other forms of exclusion. The United Nations notes that, internationally, persons with disabilities are underrepresented in the workplace and are under-represented in higher education among countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

It’s against that backdrop that Friedley is promoting access and inclusion in trail running for adaptive athletes. He’s working with race organizations to create policies and performance categories that facilitate participation by adaptive athletes. In the absence of those performance categories, the current participation rates of adaptive athletes are difficult to measure or even estimate.

Anke Drescher and Didier Delemontez and Their Many UTMB Finishes

If you follow this column closely, you may know I love it when people return to the same event again and again. To me, these veterans play a vital role in building the culture and atmosphere that surrounds a race, giving it continuity from year to year.

Anke Drescher is a grandmasters trail runner from Germany. She was there in 2003 when the first-ever UTMB was held, finishing the 153-kilometer (95 miles) course in 36:42:52. She was one of only 67 finishers. She has been at the starting line almost every year since, racking up 14 UTMB finishes from 15 starts. Drescher improved on her first finishing time by finishing in 36:13:03 in 2007, even though the course was then 10 kilometers (6 miles) longer.

Strong, consistent performance at UTMB appears to be a trademark for Drescher, and she certainly transfers those qualities to other events, racking up multiple finishes of the grueling, 200-plus-mile Tor des Géants over the years.

Reviewing my spreadsheet, France’s Didier Delemontez stood out for the same reason. After finishing 19th in the inaugural race in 2003, it appears Delemontez began a love affair with the race, returning another 15 times. When he last entered the race in 2019, at the age of 61, his finishing time placed him in the top 11% of all male finishers.

Yu Lei and the Grand Col Ferret Climb at UTMB

A blog post on the Strava website describes the climb up Grand Col Ferret as “perhaps the most iconic climb, the one that every runner – elite and amateur alike – dreads” in the UTMB. Over 4.2 kilometers (2.6 miles), runners climb 750 meters (2,450 feet) to the highest point in the race.

Runners have already covered 99 kilometers (61 miles) when they leave the checkpoint at Arnouvaz to begin the climb, so they aren’t exactly feeling fresh. Unsurprisingly, this can be a section of the race where many runners find themselves struggling to stay on goal pace.

Grand Col Ferret - view from top

The view from the top of the infamous Grand Col Ferret climb at UTMB. Photo: iRunFar/Craig Murphy

When Yu Lei, of China, first ran UTMB in 2014, the splits show he took 4:42:36 to climb from Arnouvaz to Grand Col Ferret. Lei returned to UTMB each of the four following years, and eventually whittled his time on that slope down to 1:27:27 in 2018. For context, Tim Tollefson had the fastest split from Arnouvaz to Grand Col Ferret that same year, reaching the top in 59:13. Lei went on to finish in 35:43:54. Tollefson didn’t finish that year, suffering a fall, but finished on the podium in the two previous years.

Ludovic Pommeret and the 2016 UTMB

France’s Ludovic Pommeret, then a computer engineer whose hobby was being an elite trail runner, won the 2016 UTMB. We could stop there and you’d be impressed, but you’d miss out on the juicy details that make his win stand out.

As Pommeret explained to iRunFar in a post-race interview, after starting strong and running in the lead, he had severe stomach issues three hours into the race that reduced him to a walking pace for three hours.

Having entered the race as a podium contender, he was less than a third of the way through the race when he set his expectations aside: “Inside me I didn’t believe. Then I saw that I would not finish the race, or I would finish the race but maybe I would sleep for one night for four hours and then continue later.”

He was in 50th place at the 50-kilometer (31 miles) mark — remarkably a full hour behind the lead — but clawed his way back to eventually win the race.

Ludovic Pommeret - 2016 UTMB champion

Ludovic Pommeret, the 2016 UTMB men’s champion. Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

Closing Thoughts

This is obviously not an exhaustive list of notable performances at UTMB races, just a few examples where quantitative data can enrich the storytelling and our overall appreciation of what these athletes accomplished. We’re excited to try this again on another theme in a future edition of this column.

Call for Comments

  • Did you follow any of these performances, or are you a fan of these athletes? Leave a comment to share your thoughts!
  • We only gave a few examples of great UTMB-event performances that can be better appreciated with data, but there are so many more. Which performances would you nominate?
Mallory Richard

Mallory Richard is a data analyst and trail runner in Winnipeg, Canada.