UTMB is the pinnacle of the annual trail running calendar. Top athletes from across the globe arrive in Chamonix for the final week of August to test themselves by running 105 miles around Mont Blanc. Add to that around 10,000m+ of vertical ascent and descent and you have yourself one heck of a race.
For me, UTMB 2019 was my focus race of the whole season. Before UTMB in 2018 I swore I’d race something different at the end of August 2019, but after going from 5th place at the Champex-Lac aid station in 2018 to a DNF at Vallorcine only 35km later I felt like I had too much unfinished business to not return in 2019.
2018 for me was a race season to forget. Any confidence I had was gone and I was standing on each start line wondering how long it would be before something would hamper my ability to race how I knew/hoped I could. By the end of 2018 after 4 DNF’s out of 6 races I was ready to throw it all in. I was so sick of my body failing me in one way or another.
Leading into 2019 with all the focus being on a race at the end of August I knew I needed to plan and race smart in the early stages of my season. I see it all too often where athletes competing at UTMB will go from race to race to race early in the season with no real plan on how they want to feel physically and mentally come the end of August. Many finally arrive after committing so much energy, money and especially time away from loved ones to not give themselves a real chance to be in their best physical and mental shape for the biggest race of their season/career.
After taking 5th place at the Hong Kong 100km in January on my birthday, and having a stomach that finally cooperated with me for the best part of 11hrs, I decided to pair up with David Roche from SWAP Running. Together we chatted and fine tuned my race calendar with the end goal being UTMB. It meant racing less, and often choosing a shorter distance at races than I would have in previous years. This was hard initially but as the season started to build and some great results followed (1st Mt Solitary Ultra, 3rd Retezat Skyrace, 3rd Lavaredo Ultra Dolomites, 2nd Grossglockner KTT) I became more content with the plan and the process we were working through.
Party time at the HK100 finishing in 5th place on my birthday. Photo – HK100
After the Lavaredo Ultra Dolomites race at the end of June, our family moved up to Tignes in France to base ourselves there for 7.5 weeks in the build up to UTMB (aside from a trip to Austria for Grossglockner). Being based in Tignes at 2100m was perfect for what I wanted to achieve from an altitude training perspective and after 1 week there I knew this would be somewhere special to train.
The training runs ticked over effortlessly and at the completion of each training session/day I was going to bed excited to wake up in the morning for the next adventure. Add to that having good friends Pau Capell, Hayden Hawks, Harry Jones and Marcin Swierc to train with and it was a training camp that couldn’t get much better. We ticked off mountain passes, peaks, and recces on the UTMB course and were creating amazing memories that will last longer than any race result.
Before I knew it, Friday the 30th of August was upon us and all the hard work in training was done. It was now time to see what I could achieve at UTMB.
The start of the race was crazy as usual, crazy but amazing. I still get goose bumps thinking about the Viking Clap that is a regular occurrence on the start line of UTMB in recent years. The first 10km to Les Houches seemed a lot slower than usual, and before we knew it, we were climbing up to Le Delevret and down into Saint Gervais. As we approached the outskirts of Saint Gervais I started to feel a little twitch in my left hamstring/sciatic nerve. It was something that had been a big issue in 2018, but in 2019 after a lot of physio, massage and strength exercises had been almost non-existent.
As I got through the aid station quickly and ran out of town, we approached the single track and started to climb again. I knew instantly something was up with my left leg. I didn’t have half the power climbing I normally have, and my leg was going in and out of feeling numb/tingly. It was soon becoming a passenger to my right leg doing 80% of the work.
I spoke out loud telling myself that it would pass like it has done in the past. I knew from 2018 with the nerve pain that it can go away as quickly as it came on which I was hoping would happen sooner rather than later. As the km’s ticked over and the feeling in my leg became more painful, I basically got slower and slower. I was walking inclines I would normally have run, and climbs I’d normally hike with real purpose became a dawdle. Any rhythm and momentum I had was lost and thoughts started to creep in about how far I had to go and what was ahead.
Arriving into Les Contamines at 31km was where I saw Liz and Sienna for the first time, and despite a massive boost in getting to see them, my legs felt flat and my left leg was by this stage causing me real grief. Liz gave me some tough love at the aid station and reminded me of how much I’d put into preparing for this race and the sacrifices I’d made.
The next 5km or so from Les Contamines to Notre Dam de la Gorge is easily some of the most runnable terrain overall on the UTMB route and in the 3 times that I’ve raced UTMB I’d never felt so restricted. Apart from my left leg, my mind and body wanted to push faster and smoother, but any attempt to open up my stride was shut down pretty quickly with searing pain shooting down the back of my left leg. I knew that the climb from Notre Dam up to Col du Bonhomme was coming up and so I thought with the shorter stride length due to the steepness of the climb that this might offer some reprieve. The slight reprieve in shorter stride length was then compelled with a left leg with no power. I ended up trying to put more and more force into my hiking poles to try and propel me up the steep terrain and rock steps.
I got slower and slower to the point where it felt like other athletes were flying past me on the uphill, and then the downhill from Refuge du Bonhomme went from bad to worse as I was slowing more and more until walking downhill was my best option. From Les Contamines to Les Chapieux I went from 13th position to 39th position. As I descended to Les Chapieux after battling a numb, tingling and powerless left leg, my dreams and aspirations at UTMB seemed all but gone. I’d tried to think about the quickest way back to Courmayeur where Liz and Sienna were waiting, so that I could get a ride back home and to bed. I decided that despite it logistically being a hassle to pull out at Les Chapieux and get from there to Courmayeur, it was going to be a less painful way to get there and likely a lot faster. After a mandatory gear check, I then looked for a race official to ask how I could pull out of the race and get back to Courmayeur.
I’ll never know how the timing played out but the moment I started looking for a race official my good buddies Harry Jones and Jason Schlarb came into the checkpoint asking how I was going, obviously knowing from looking at my body language that things weren’t right. They both offered kind words and Harry reassured me that things would come good and there was a long way to go. These were thoughts that had already gone through my head dozens of times in the previous 34km from Saint Gervais to Les Chapieux, but they were now coming from a good mate. Seeing how gutted Harry looked because I was having such a tough time made me feel like I was really letting him down by not giving it just one more chance to try and turn my race around.
As I left Les Chapieux, I started walking, and then jogging, and then running. My plan was to try and hang on to Harry for as long as I could and then hope some friends would follow and I could then hang with them as long as possible before getting to Courmayeur. After less than 1km running I realised that the nerve pain that had restricted me so much in the last 34km was gone, I was running freely! I started reflecting back to a recce I’d done a month earlier where I was running up this same road section and I felt like I was moving just as well as then. From here I kept looking ahead, from headtorch to headtorch, I was picking off runners one by one as I made my way up to Col de la Seigne.
The pyramides calcaires section had been added back into the race this year between Col de la Seigne and Courmayeur after a couple of years without it. Climbing up through super technical terrain that reminded me of adventures in Andorra I felt like a kid at Christmas. It was on the descent through here that I caught up to my buddy Tom Owens from the UK. It’s always nice spending time in races with mates as it helps time pass by a little quicker and makes an already awesome experience that much more fun.
Before I knew it, I was arriving into Courmayeur and seeing Liz and Sienna again. It’s always such a boost seeing them when I’m racing, and it felt so good to feel like things were turning around and I was moving well. I arrived into Courmayeur in 10th place, so in a roundabout way I had achieved one of my pre-race goals of being close to the top 10 by that point. A super quick stock up on fuel and water and I was off on the climb up to Refuge Bertone. I’d done this climb twice in training and absolutely loved it so I was excited to rip in. I overtook another 5 runners on the climb up to Bertone and was feeling fantastic as I started the traverse across to Refuge Bonatti and then to Arnuovaz.
In a strange way I was looking forward to the climb up to Grand Col Ferret. This is normally a super tough climb even on fresh legs. I’d earmarked this climb up to Grand Col Ferret as well as the descent to La Fouly pre-race as a section that I really wanted to be better on than in previous years. I can’t explain how good it felt making my way up this climb, knowing that I was moving well and absorbing all the warmth the sun was bringing as it rose from behind the mountains and brought light to a new day.
I didn’t do anything particularly fantastic on the descent down to La Fouly but I felt like I was holding my own. I kept repeating over in my head, smooth = fast, and fast = catch the next guy in front of me. Liz and I had organised pre-race that I’d see her and Sienna at La Fouly. It’s not a support checkpoint but to see them there cheering me on was another boost that I knew would get me to the next aid station at Champex-Lac.
Just before the start of the last climb up to Champex-Lac I made the rookie error of looking back as I left the road and started to climb up the trail. My buddy Tom was currently running up a part of the climb I knew I’d hiked up. This was the first moment in the race where I felt a brief bit of panic set in. Instead of letting negative thoughts fester and build, I decided I’d just climb as smoothly and as controlled as I could and deal with whatever came next. I prepped myself for what I’d say to myself and then do if Tom caught me.
A lightning quick aid station still didn’t prevent Tom from coming in just before I left. Fortunately, Tom didn’t see me in there so I was able to sneak off down the road without him noticing. I made a decision as I ran on the road out of Champex that I would leave the poles on my pack until a spot on the trail where I knew I could run to if I was moving well. I filled my head with positive thoughts, and I must have had a smile from ear to ear as I climbed up running every single step of the way until the moment where I knew the poles had to come out. From here I didn’t let up and I hiked hard and picked smooth lines and good foot placements on the technical trails.
Near the top of the climb out of Champex, near La Giète, I looked up and saw my buddy Robert Hajnal from Romania. I knew he was in 3rd place so to see him ahead added more fuel to the fire. I reminded myself that there was still a long way to go and that I didn’t need to rush anything in trying to catch and pass him. As I got closer, I realised that he wasn’t doing too well. On one hand I was stoked to be moving into 3rd place, but on the other I was gutted that a mate wasn’t going to finish the race how he would have wanted. We exchanged a few words of encouragement and I continued to the descent into Trient.
Leaving the Trient checkpoint with a 6min buffer on Tom was all I needed to reassure me that I was still moving well, and I felt confident that I was going to be able to hold him off. From Trient to Chamonix I broke up the race into more manageable sized pieces. I reminded myself that I had the climb up out of Trient that I always seem to enjoy in training, and that by the time I got to Vallorcine I was nearly home.
A couple of minutes in Vallorcine was all I needed to stock up on water and fuel for the final stretch home. As I left Vallorcine and headed up to Col des Montets, I was updated from a few different sources that I was anywhere from 12-15mins ahead of Tom in Vallorcine. I couldn’t believe how well I was moving on the runnable terrain up to the Col before we started the monster climb up to La Tête aux vents. It was on this final major climb of the race where I started to feel like the legs were catching up on me. Adding to tired legs was the heat of the day which was warming up, and the sun was beating down on me as I made my way up the climb.
The support on the trail up to La Tête aux vents and then across to La Flégère was absolutely amazing. People were obviously checking the live updates and to hear them cheering my name as I ran/jogged/shuffled my way along the trail is part of the race that I’ll hold with me for a long time.
The traverse to La Flégère felt like a lifetime as usual, but once I arrived there I started to get a little excited at the prospect of getting on the podium at UTMB. I knew I still had a good 8km or so downhill to Chamonix and the bulk of this descent was pretty technical so I couldn’t afford a split-second lapse in concentration. I descended as smoothly as I could while also throwing a little caution to the wind as I got closer to La Floria. I blasted through La Floria and started bombing the groomed trail downhill until I got to the outskirts of Chamonix.
As I got closer to the main street of Chamonix my emotions started to get the better of me as I realised a dream was becoming a reality. Running through the streets of Chamonix and seeing friends and supporters cheering me on was a surreal experience. The atmosphere and noise of the crowds was incredible. Rounding the last turn before the finish line I was greeted by Liz who passed me Sienna and we ran the last 100m of the race together. To be finishing the final moments of UTMB in 3rd place with my little princess was a dream come true. Moments later Liz ran up to us and we celebrated as a family and the emotions started overflowing.
I’d done it, 3rd place at UTMB in 21hr48mins and a race I’ll never forget. It was far from the perfect race or anything close to, but I was so proud of what I had achieved. To pull things back from 39th position at Les Chapieux to 3rd place at the finish line felt so good.
Running to the finish line with Sienna was the best feeling ever. Photo – Jose Miguel Muñoz
So much went into the preparations for this years UTMB. We’d dedicated 2 months in the build up living and training in Tignes and I’d spent a lot of time away from Liz and Sienna, so to have this result makes everything seem so worthwhile. I am so excited to see what the future holds for our little family of three.
A massive thank you to everyone who has been involved in one way or another with this performance. Liz and Sienna, I can’t thank you both enough for supporting me unconditionally and giving me the opportunity to chase my dreams.
To my sponsors Vibram, Kailas, etc – thank you for sticking with me throughout the storm that was 2018. I feel so honoured to represent your amazing brands and the incredible people behind them.
Thank you to each and every person that has shown me so much support before, during and after UTMB! It feels so great to have such an incredibly supportive community of people behind me.
This is an experience I’ll never forget, and I can’t wait to get stuck into the 2020 race season!
Nothing beats celebrating a finish with my two girls. Photo - Jose Miguel Muñoz