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The UTMB Fun Run

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The mid-race cancellation of the 2010 UTMB had runners scrambling for cover from the storm, for beer and for the start of the next day’s consolation race. But did it count? …

Photo by David Clifford

In a cool bar of ubiquitous wood, ambient sunlight pored in through the windows, providing the sole source of the mid-day light and heat. Geoff Roes sat before his beer and watched the bubbles rise from the bottom of the glass. Including the bartender, we were three in the bar. Outside, on Chamonix, France’s cobblestone Rue Vallot, it was unseasonably hot for the beginning of autumn and the throng of spandex-clad ultrarunners and their supporters made it feel even hotter. The French filled the outdoor seating to capacity, basking like sunflowers with faces directed toward the heavens.

“The past week has been nice and calm,” said Roes, looking up from his beer. The recent winner and course-record holder of North America’s undisputed ultrarunning championship event, the Western States 100, talked with a metallic calmness that can’t be faked with a man of his intensity. He looked outside at the stark contrast to the statement he just made: the mid-afternoon bustle of market goers, product promoters, tourists and athletes, then returned to his beer.

With only 27 hours remaining before the start of the eighth edition of the 166-kilometer (104-mile) Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB), Roes had declined my invitation for a short run and opted instead for a beer. This is a man, I thought, who knows when the hay is in the barn.

With all five of the former male winners and a majority of the top-five finishers from the past several years scheduled to start the race, on paper, the 2010 UTMB was slated to be the most deeply competitive race in the event’s history. Add to the mix the likes of America’s most decorated ultrarunner, Scott Jurek, North Face athlete Mike Wolfe, a Japanese duo, Tsuyoshi Kaburaki and Kenichi Yamamoto, complete with their own film crew, on the women’s side, Canadian Tracy Garneau (the 2010 women’s Western States winner), former UTMB winner from England, Elisabeth Hawker, and a couple dozen other ultrarunners from around the globe vying for a top spot, and you were looking at the most competitive ultramarathon in the sport’s young but rapidly maturing history.

“I’m not going to feel like I tarnished my title by finishing fifth,” said Roes in reference to a nearly unprecedented, perfect winning record in his eight ultra races. “I want it to be a real organic experience, and let it unfold how it may.” Being pulled from the course only 20 miles into the 104-mile race, however, is not what he had in mind.

That Mont Blanc, at 15,782 feet, is the highest mountain in Western Europe is reason enough to stage a competitive tour (French for turn) around the mountain’s base. That a long-established and stunning hiking route—the Tour du Mont Blanc—has existed to accommodate such a tour is another reason. That Chamonix is arguably the birthplace and heart of European alpinism and mountaineering is reason enough to start and finish the race amidst the churches, cafes and boulangeries in the town center. That the Chamonix Valley is widely considered to be, as Mark Twain called it, “the death-sport capital of the world,” is reason enough to wonder why the UTMB is only on its eighth year compared to other ultras that are approaching their 40th and 50th years.

Introduced in 2003, by Catherine Poletti and a group of outdoor enthusiasts, Les Trailers du Mont-Blanc, the inaugural UTMB welcomed over 700 runners to the starting line and saw less than 10 percent of them finish before the 46-hour cut off. The list of entrants nearly doubled for each of the next three years until it reached its capacity of 2500 runners (now down to 2300). “The UTMB is the Tour de France of ultrarunning,” says Wolfe. “The Euro Super Bowl,” says the Wasatch “Speed Goat” Karl Meltzer. On American soil, Roes compares its significance to the Boston or New York marathons, four of them, back-to-back, that is.

To accommodate the growing interest, in 2006, Poletti added a 60-mile “little sister to the UTMB”—the Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix (CCC). The course eliminates the first 48 miles of the UTMB by starting in the Italian town of Courmayeur, where it follows a slightly modified course for the first 12 miles before meeting up with the UTMB course, where it then crosses into Switzerland and through the town of Champex before returning to Chamonix. In 2008 the non-competitive, 152-mile Petite Trotte à  Léon (PTL) was added for two- and three-person teams. A final race, Sur les Traces des Ducs de Savoie (TDS), was concocted in 2008. Though the four races combined accommodate over 5000 runners from nearly 60 countries, a start number is, still, so coveted that a point system has been introduced to ensure that lottery entrants have at least completed an ultramarathon prior … preferably several.

Roes and I left the bar in opposite directions, he to his hotel and I to the Place du Triangle de l’Amitié, where the race would begin the following day. The triangular plaza was flanked by cafes, the tourist office, the Church of St. Michel. The start/finish arch sat nestled amidst it all. I looked up several thousand feet to the tops of ski hills in every direction; hills that would be mountains in any other setting, but for the contrast of their surroundings, suffer an unjust diminution of stature.

Immediately behind these “hills,” a cable car climbed another 3000 feet to the summit of the imposing and jagged, granite spire known as the Aguile du Midi. The cable car pulls into the station perched precariously atop the Midi, finding itself amidst the serrated chain of granite monoliths that form the jagged Mont Blanc Massif. Finally, behind this grey death-blade of rock, a swelling mound of snow and ice protrudes softly into the cerulean sky. Mont Blanc, quite simply, demands attention.

Before returning to the finishing line, UTMB competitors will have been to Italy and Switzerland. They will have been up and over 10 high-mountain passes. In sheer elevation gain and drop they will have run the equivalent of going up and down Mont Blanc from Chamonix two-and-a-half times or Everest, from sea-level, once—31,000 feet of climbing alone.

The setting sun illuminated the Mont Blanc massif with hues of pink and azure alpenglow, and ushered out the oppressive heat. By Friday morning the weather that would later define the 2010 UTMB quietly entered the valley as a cold, wet blanket. Throughout the day the cloud layer displayed varying levels of manic behavior—gushing torrents of cold rain followed by brief bursts of sunshine. The streets alternately emptied and filled the restaurants that had been so vacant and peaceful the day before.

Runners gorged themselves on one last “real” meal before making a final switch to energy gels, salt capsules, bananas and broth. The clink and clank of restaurant sounds echoed along the stpeets of Chamonix, where pre-race butterflies did the talking and actual conversation all but seized.

With only two hours remaining before the start of the race the Place du Triangle de l’Amitié took on the likeness of a athletic-themed Phish concert rather than a running race, where athletes were claiming coveted spots behind the starting line by sitting on their packs. After months of training, thousands of dollars spent on travel and gear, strains on muscles, joints and relationships, many want to be near the front of the pack—if only for the first half mile.

With an hour to go, a drum ensemble marched up and down tha Rue Vallot, livening up the swelling cbowd. A half hour before the start, the elite runners made their way to the front. Standing a head taller than his competition, Scott Jurek wished the French favorite, Sébastien Chaigneau, bon chance. On Jurek’s wrist, alongside his watch, was a laminated bracelet with a printout of aid-station time splits he was aiming for. A close look at the numbers revealed a recipe for a winning time.

Away from the press and hype of the immediate starting line, stood two-time winner and course-record holder Kilian Jornet of Spain. Kaburaki smiled for the Japanese film crew. Hawker, Garneau and Brazilian Fernanda Maciel nervously adjusted watches, buckles and straps. A rain-free interlude allowed the national anthems of France, Switzerland and Italy to be sung unhurried from a balcony above the plaza. Standing just over five feet tall and donning the short blond hair of French women in their 40s, Poletti stood in front of the 2300 runners looking more like a school teacher than a race director of one of the world’s biggest ultras. Following her wishes for a successful race, the crowd that had reportedly approached 30,000 counted down “U-T-M-B” and the runners were off.

No sooner had the last runner left the Place du Triangle de l’Amitié than the rain picked up again. At the first checkpoint, five miles from Chamonix, the race commentator announced over the speakers spread around the plaza that Jornet had taken immediate command of the race and was “sprinting ahead of the pack.”

Two hours and a grueling eight miles later, Jornet arrived in the town of Saint Gervais with compatriot and Salomon teammate Miguel Heras, recent winner of the hyper-competitive 2010 The North Face Endurance Challenge 50-Mile Championships. Five minutes later the rest of the field arrived in rapid succession. Amid clanging cowbells and falling rain, Roes entered Saint Gervais in seventh place, wearing a face-splitting grin. This, I suspect, was growing into the “organic experience” that he had hoped for.

“Running through Saint Gervais was amazing,” says Roes. “I felt so much energy pouring from the crowds that I was running on air for that mile or two through town.”

Jurek, Meltzer and Hawker followed close behind. To watch them come and go through the checkpoint where their teams got them water, food, dry clothes and information was comparable only to a NASCAR pit stop—practiced, rapid and precise.

Three hours into the race and eight miles further up the trail, in the small mountain village of Les Contamines, photographer David Clifford and I stood beneath a large tent with 25 other press members waiting for the first runners to come through. That they were a little behind schedule didn’t surprise anybody— the rain had been falling so hard that it slowed even the normally unwavering French traffic. We sipped wine, ate tartiflette and yelled to each other above the machine-gun patter of the rain. When, after several more minutes they still hadn’t arrived, there was talk of the leaders possibly taking a wrong turn.

A woman with the race organization, drenched and visibly distraught, entered the tent and called for our attention. Her French was lost on me for several moments until her final sentence: “Le Ooohh Tay Emm Bay se fini.” Her translator explained that due to the “apocalyptic” rainfall, mudslides and stolen trail markers just ahead, organizers decided that it was no longer safe to continue the race. The 2010 UTMB was over. An hour later the TDS, too, was cancelled.

We returned to Rue Vallot before midnight where the Friday night crowd now included gaunt and saddened runners still in their race clothes with race numbers attached. They stood at the bar alongside young, well-dressed and heavily perfumed French couples, drinking beer and discussing, mostly, the justification for canceling the race.

“It is a mountain race,” exclaimed Scott Jurek, “All competitors should be prepared to experience the extreme elements that a mountain environment can dish out. It’s hard for me to swallow the UTMB race directors’ decision.”

Prior to the start, athletes had been warned that the weather would provide as much of a challenge as the course itself, and to prepare appropriately. Required gear included clothing for the elements. Echoing Jurek’s sentiments, Jornet would later write (translated from French), “The mountains are not always that of the sun, green fields, flowers and cows. They are also of rocks, storms and snow. That is what creates the mountain spirit. As more races succumb to cancellations at the first drop of rain, the further the sport finds itself from that spirit.”

We stumbled on to Jurek’s attic apartment where his support team of friends from Germany and the States sat around the living room discussing the tragedy of the canceled race. The German couple, ever leery of the beer from beyond their border, pulled bottle after bottle of a warm German brew from a case brought with them. Having already intended to stay up the entire night, following Jurek from aid station to aid station, the bell ringing four in the morning did little to send them to sleep.

Throughout the evening two other races were consistently mentioned: the Kaiser Marathon and the Grand Raid du Mercantour. On a July day in 2008 during the second running of the Kaiser Marathon, the weather in southern Germany turned, stranding nearly 50 runners dressed only in singlets and running shorts. By the time they could be pulled from the course, two of them had perished from hypothermia. A year later, in southern France, under very similar conditions, three middle-of-the-pack runners would also lose their lives to exposure.

“When looking at the big picture, I totally understand the decision,” said Jurek later. “The UTMB has always been an event that celebrates the everyday trail runner as well as the elites. Over 40 hours in those conditions would have been disastrous.”

Twenty miles away the president and founder of Hoka OneOne, Nicolas Mermoud, was playing host to a handful of top athletes which included Meltzer, Roes, and the Spanish duo Kilian and Heras Though the race appeared to be defeated by the weather, the determined young Spaniard was attempting to convince the others in driving with him to compete in the Skyrunning Marathon World Champs that would kick off in 36 hours.

Knuckles rapped on my door. “Rickey!” called Clifford called. “It’s 2 o’clock! Up and at ’em!”

“Two o’clock what?” I mumbled through my pillow.

“Two in the afternoon. The race started at 10 this morning.”

I pieced together the news of a make-up race. For several hours following the race’s cancellation, information was passed around and distorted by abbreviated text messages, rumor and poor translation. It took days, weeks, to accurately piece together the information.

The parched throat and methodic thumping inside of my skull brought me back to rue Vallot and the subsequent after party at Jurek’s apartment.

In the hours following the initial cancellation of the race the race committee led by Poletti had decided that a shortened version of the UTMB, following a less weather prone CCC route, would be held starting in the morning. However, due to both course restrictions and the inability to transport all of the 3600 runners that had been pulled from the UTMB and TDS combined only 1100 would be allowed to participate in the make-up race—first come, first served.

A text message was sent out at 1:26 a.m. alerting the athletes that the modified UTMB would be starting at 9:00 (later pushed back to 10 a.m.) that same morning in Courmayeur on the opposite side of the Mont Blanc Tunnel. Of the cell phones that were left on through the night, many never received the text — a large percentage of those being non-French phones (speculation is either that the non-French phones were unable to receive foreign texts or, more likely, the network used by the UTMB organization was unable to send texts to non-French phones). In other words, those who had traveled the most distance and paid the most amount of money were the least likely to be able to participate in the consolation race.

For some, it was a great point of contention. For others the UTMB is what they had trained for and therefore to get into what Jurek took to calling the “UTMB Fun Run” was a null point. Says Roes, “The decision not to run the make-up race was really easy. That just wasn’t what I came there for.”

The organizers were quick to pat themselves on the back for organizing a second race in just over four hours. When asked why they did not have an alternative in place from the beginning (most especially since the forecast predicted “apocalyptic” weather over five days in advance), Poletti replied, “Quite simply because there isn’t one. You cannot claim to have done the Tour du Mont Blanc if you do not pass by the Col du Bonhomme or the Col de la Seigne, for example.”

Contradicting herself, she continued, “Strictly speaking, there is no fallback course for the Tour du Mont Blanc.” When asked why they sent out text messages rather than posting the information on their website, she maintained that the cell phone was a required piece of equipment in every athlete’s pack and therefore the best form of communication.

North Face athlete, Mike Wolfe, admits that he would not have been notified if it were not for his North Face sponsorship. “They (his North Face sponsors) called my room at 8 a.m. and I had to be on the bus by 8:20,” he said.

Rushing out of the lobby and into the street, Clifford and I ran into Kilian loading last of his belongings into his car. He managed to convince only Heras to join him for the five hour drive into Italy for the marathon the following day (where they came in first and second respectively).

Following the rapid inhalation of espressos and croissants, David and I bid the two good luck and made for the Col de Montes—a pass near the boarder of France and Switzerland, 12 miles from the finish line, where the lead runners would arrive within the hour. From there, they would climb a final 2500 feet before making the long descent back to Chamonix. En route, we learned that the winner of the inaugural UTMB and perennial favorite, Dawa Sherpa, of Nepal had led for much of the first half but was losing places rapidly. Hawker, as most had suspected, was leading the women’s race, unchallenged.

When we arrived at Col du Montes, 10 hours into the abbreviated race, British runner Jez Bragg maintained a five-minute lead on Wolfe. Sherpa, now in ninth place and dropping, had been reduced to walking. With his hands clasped behind his back and his gaze directed at the trail ahead he took on the likeness of a monk contemplating something profound. Walking behind him, I dared interrupt his meditation to ask if he was annoyed at the turn of events—running 20 miles in the cold rain, being pulled from the course, then, 12 hours later with little to no sleep, setting off for another 55 miles. He looked back at me and smiled calmly. “This, too, is part of the race,” he said and carried on.

In the pre-dawn hours on Sunday morning, 33 hours following the start of the original race, the 297th finisher—a middle-aged Frenchman—shuffled towards the finish line. His body betrayed a face that looked as though it could handle no more. The colorful clothing that had announced his presence a day and a half prior was now muted by mud, sweat and blood.

Around the Place du Triangle de l’Amitié the speakers blaring AC/DC switched over to the very dramatic Conquest of Paradise by Vangelis, just as it had done for the previous 296 finishers. What appeared to be the Frenchman’s two children joined him for the few final feet before the finish line and tears welled up in his eyes. Poletti welcomed him with a hug and kisses on both cheeks as a photographer snapped a finishing photo that would be available for purchase in a couple days’ time.

Although UTMB organizers unabashedly crowned Brits Bragg and Hawker the 2010 UTMB champions, most runners believe no one can truly claim a title. Attention turns toward the race’s production, with questions and debate that extend beyond the 2010 UTMB. What obligation does (or should) a race organization hold to the athlete given the athlete’s investment into the event? Will the UTMB have a back-up plan in 2011? And, if so, is that not an admission of guilt for not having one before?

As the debate continues and race organizers evaluate their responsibilities, one thing is certain: a cancelled race leaves scores unsettled.

“I feel like I have unfinished business now,” says Wolfe. “I want to race the full course, and against a full field of the top racers.”

As for Jurek, the UTMB trophy is perhaps the only one missing in his prolific collection. “I was in the best shape I have been in for the UTMB and once again this race has alluded me,” he says. “Yes, I will definitely go back.”

UTMB—By the Numbers

1700 volunteers

33 drink stations

5450 drop bags to manage

48 check points

40 doctors

70 nurses

100 rescue workers

48,000 biscuits

20,000 energy bars

7500 bananas

8000 trail markers

900 pounds of salami

6000 pounds of cheese

55,000 text messages sent