UTMB – One of Europe’s most challenging runs: Mud, mayhem and mountain miles

Although at Balance Performance we see people from every conceivable background, across a range of ages and physical abilities one of our largest group of clients is runners – LOTS of marathon and ultramarathon runners as well as recreational,  keep fit, run around Clapham and Wandsworth common type runners. With that in mind I asked Balance friend and client Warren Pole to write a few words on his latest ultradistance event. Thanks so much Warren! continue reading about the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB)

Mud, mayhem and mountain miles

Words: Warren Pole

Photos: The North Face

Warren Pole UTMB

Warren Pole – Victorious!

The Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) has been on my bucket list ever since it first snapped me in two like a twig back in 2009 when I foolishly took it on at short notice. I wasn’t a complete ultramarathon novice then, having trained for and completed the Marathon des Sables earlier that year but as the UTMB proved in no uncertain terms, I still had a lot to learn.

The UTMB is a behemoth and the numbers are alarming to say the least. Starting and finishing in Chamonix, the almost entirely off-road race crosses through Italy and Switzerland for a total of 103 miles. The distance must be run in one hit, and there are sharp cutoff times to eliminate anyone not keeping the pace. 46 hours is the maximum allowed for a successful finish meaning plenty of runners will plough through two straight nights with no sleep.

Then of course, there’s the climbing and descending to deal with – just in case you thought 46 hours for just over 100 miles sounded benevolent, a glance at the course profile proves otherwise because being held in the Alps, the UTMB sends competitors up, up and over 9,400 metres of vertical climbing along the route, and because the course is a loop, any metres climbed must also be descended again.

To put this all into some sort of perspective, it’s like running from London to Birmingham while haring up and down Snowdon every ten miles.

No surprise then that over half of the competitors in any given year don’t make the finish despite having had to qualify for the race by finishing other similarly demanding events.

Having successfully made the finish line at the CCC, the UTMB’s ‘small’ support race in 2011 (100km, 6,000 vertical metres, 26 hour cutoff), 2012 was the year everything went into making the dream of a finish in the main event a reality. Up went my mileage, hill training was added with a new intensity and I entered more races than I knew what to do with to steadily increase my range and resilience, both mental and physical.

Jonathan and Keith at Balance were a key part of the support crew that got me to the startline, because as any big goal looms, so injury paranoia comes with it. In my addled pre-race mind, every tiny tweak was a torn Achilles, every minor niggle a ruptured ACL. When these worries struck, the Balance team patiently checked things over and sent me on my way again with sound advice and a great toolkit to manage any early damage before it became a race-ending knockout. Crosscore 180 exercises (great core stability and functional strength) and a lot of foam rollering [Warren uses both the TPT Quadballer and Grid Foam roller] as well as a plethora of key stretches to be deployed when needed all kept me on the straight and narrow and meant that as the mileage and abuse racked up, so my fitness built to match it.

Another cornerstone was diet. Banishing sports nutrition a year earlier had seen a big step up for my endurance, but now I began incorporating superfoods. Having read plenty of running books I knew this stuff was good for me and would help with fat burning, steady energy production, as well as boosting my immune system while training hard, but every time I tried eating it, the results were grim.

Salvation came from a good friend who was also a superfood and nutritional expert who promised he could mix up a daily shake that would give me everything I needed, would taste great, and that I could just chuck in a blender every morning as breakfast. He was as good as his word, and as the months rolled by and the miles racked up the results were astonishing. I smashed pb after pb, recovered faster and seemed all but untouchable by any illness despite pushing harder than ever. It was so impressive we’ve even started making them for sale now for anyone else who’s looking to harness superfoods into their diet but is having the same problems as me in doing it successfully – more at www.33shake.com. [i’ve tried these, VERY good and coming to Balance Performance shop soon]

Back to the race and with body, mind, and diet down tight, when the time came and I rolled into Chamonix before the event I knew I was as ready as I would ever be. But six hours before the traditional evening start in the town centre the organisers dropped a bombshell. The weather (freezing, windy, tipping with rain and only turning far worse) had made the high passes in and out of Italy too dangerous to cross and a new route would be run instead. All in France, this would be ‘just’ 68 miles and with ‘only’ 6,000 metres of climbing.

The disappointment was palpable as fully amped 2,300 runners saw their race rapidly reshuffled in front of their eyes. Thankfully this was only temporary because very quickly the tide turned. This was still the UTMB, these were still tough mountains, and we were still here to race after all and by seven pm we were massed at the startline as the countdown blared to set us off into the night ahead.

Two hours in as darkness fully fell, so the rain came too and it didn’t leave for the next 16 hours. My own memories of this night are already hazy to say the least, but there was certainly a lot of fearsome climbing involved, made all the more entertaining thanks to the trail being swamp in many places as the torrential downpour chewed it up around our feet. There were some brief respites from the rain, although only when we climbed high enough for it to have become snow instead… This may have been quite scenic had it not been pitch dark at the time.

As dawn broke, instead of a bright mountain paradise all we were rewarded with for a long night of grinding effort was more grey drizzle and wet mist. Yet despite all this, the inspiration that had driven me to take on this race was still burning. Knowing it was now not a question of whether I would finish, but what time I would finish in, I found fresh energy – from where I still don’t know – to shift gear from staggering and shuffling to running and concentrated on leaving everything I had on that trail.

Looking back at the hours of heavy trail bashing the followed this decision, it’s remarkable what the body is really capable of. Just half an hour of this would have left me bedridden for days five years ago when my sedentary lifestyle, poor diet, and years of previous injuries from motorcycle racing really caught up with me as back and knee problems threw me onto the physical scrapheap. Now, instead of sitting on the sidelines as my GP had kindly recommended back then, good old hard graft, great treatment, good eating and sound advice had brought me to a point where finishing a race like the UTMB was a reality.

So while at the front of the field some of the greatest athletes you may never have heard of like Mike Foote, Francois d’Haene and Sebastien Chaigneau duked it out for the win (which would finally go to d’Haene in an unfeasibly fast ten and a half hours), I took just over twice as long to win the battle with my own demons and even sneak into the top half of the finishers in the process.

Well chuffed would be an understatement.”


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