The Road to the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc – what is the UTMB?
After completing the Marathon des Sables in May 2012, I thought I’d earned the next 10 years off running. The MdS is a multi-stage ultra-marathon across the Sahara. Along with 900 others, I had to cover 150 miles in five days on brutal terrain in blistering heat. I loved it but even so enough is enough. Or so I thought until some friends I made in the Sahara popped up with the idea of running the North Face Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc.
The desert must have fried their brains. The UTMB makes the MdS look like a picnic on the beach. But then of course I got swept along by their enthusiasm. The pain of MdS was all forgotten which is why the UTMB in August will be my next high. So what is it about this event that makes it the ultimate ultimate?
The UTMB is a single-stage ultra-marathon in the Alps, crossing France, Italy and Switzerland. Covering 100 miles and with an elevation gain of 10,000 metres, it’s widely regarded as the most difficult foot race in Europe. Roughly 2,400 people take part of whom just 90 are women. That’s possibly strange as women have better endurance over distance than men.
The best runners complete the loop in slightly more than 20 hours, which is frankly incredible. Most runners clock between 30 and 45 hours. To give you some perspective on this, the average hiker takes about a week to cover the distance. Of course the scenery and the terrain are stunning – but they need to be if you’re putting that much effort in.
You can’t just enter the UTMB and rock up. You have to qualify via three extreme running events. The MdS was one of mine. Later last year I did two others – 60 miles along the North Downs Way, and 64 miles in a single day in Norfolk. In spite of what people have to put themselves through just to reach the start line in Chamonix, the UTMB is vastly oversubscribed and only one in seven who apply, get in.
So what’s the allure? It will pass through three countries in a dramatic loop around the highest mountain in the Alps, and for me, taking part in a race which challenges every aspect of your personality has great appeal. It’s my chance to play Centre Court at Wimbledon. Hopefully the atmosphere and camaraderie will help to numb the pain in my ultimate thrill. The sense of adventure should be amazing.
With a mandatory kit list that includes a survival blanket, waterproof over-trousers and jacket with hood, I will be testing out some kit in a later blog, warm, waterproof gloves and no mention of sun screen, I assume the weather can be pretty bad in late August. Severe weather shortened last year’s race, with the UK’s totally amazing Lizzy Hawker taking her fifth victory as the first woman to cross the finish line. She runs with huge courage and humility
Suffice to say my training of 60+ miles a week of running will also need to include some mental preparation if I am to survive harsh time cut-offs and up to 40 hours of non-stop running. Should I have quit after the desert picnic after all? We’ll see.
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