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Americans had a strong showing at the 2017 Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB), which started in Chamonix, France, last weekend, September 1-2. Tim Tollefson, 32, of Mammoth Lakes, California, finished in third behind French runner Francois D’Haene and Spanish phenom Kilian Jornet. Americans Jim Walmsley finished fifth, Dylan Bowman seventh and Zach Miller ninth. Amy Sproston, 43, of Portland, Oregon, finished eighth.
This is the highest number of American runners to land in the top 10 at the competitive 171K (105-mile) race, which has traditionally been dominated by European runners. Only six American men have stood on the podium since it started in 2003, and none have won it outright. American women have topped the podium five times.
The 2017 edition was heralded as the deepest field in the race’s history, with three returning champions in the men’s race—D’Haene, Jornet and Frenchman Xavier Thévenard, who between them hold seven UTMB titles. The women’s race was equally stacked, with 2016 champion Caroline Chaverot, as well as Andrea Huser and Nuria Picas who had both won other events at the UTMB series and placed second in the flagship 105-mile race in past years.
Amy Sproston Guts Out a Top-10 Finish
Amy Sproston has toed the start line of UTMB four times, but she’s only finished once, in eighth place in 2012, on a course that had been shortened due to inclement weather.
This year, she came in with a ton of vert in her legs, ready to take the climbs hard and build an early lead. Unfortunately, gastric issues set in early and seemed to derail her race almost before it had started.
“I made my first emergency bathroom stop at Les Houches, 8K in,” she says. She would make nine more by the time she reached Courmayeur, Italy, 78K in.
“I’m not sure if it was a stomach bug,” she says. “My stomach had felt a little off since Wednesday, and I felt feverish early on in the race. Maybe it was something else.”
Twelve hours in to the race, the Imodium she’d taken finally kicked in. At Courmayeur she wolfed down a giant plate of pasta, and suddenly felt ready to go. She left the aid station in 38th place—”Luckily I didn’t know this,” she says—and ran strong, picking runners off as she went.
By Champex-Lax, 123K in, she was in 15th place, and by Vallorcine (150K), she was in eighth.
“The race did not play out at all like I’d planned,” she says. “But in the end, it was a super fun way to finish and race my way back into the top 10.”
She ultimately crossed the line in eighth female. Spanish runner Núria Picas took the win, followed three minutes behind by Andrea Huser, from Switzerland. Frenchwoman Christelle Bard took third.
Tim Tollefson Takes “the patient-hunter approach.”
“This year the men’s field was deeper than any previous edition, and likely [deeper than] any trail ultra ever assembled,” says Tollefson. “To podium, I knew it would take a winning effort.”
The race started out with Jornet, D’Haene, Thévenard, Walmsley and Miller in the lead. Walmsley, who has gained a reputation for taking races fast from the gun, made the decision to stick with lead pack, often waiting at aid stations for the others to catch up.
“I wanted to try to pace off of the more experienced runners in the field like Francois and Kilian, while at the same time, testing them and keeping the pace forward,” Walmsley says. “Sometimes, I accidentally found myself ahead more than I wanted. The aid stations are a good time to wait because you can refuel.”
About 20K in, just before St. Gervais, Miller took a wrong turn and got separated from the lead pack. “It was totally my fault,” he says. “I probably lost about seven to eight minutes. I tried to catch back up, and I did work my way up to fourth, but I could never quite close the gap to Killian, Jim, and Francois.”
Miller, who prefers to race from the front, struggled to bounce back mentally, and found that his downhill legs weren’t quite where’d have liked them to be.
Walmsley, Jornet and D’Haene soon created a gap on the rest of the field, and ran mostly together until just before the 100K mark. “I gained a lot from sharing miles with them,” says Walmsley. “Not only admiration for how well they ran, but also a lot of experience of how to do what they do. I hope to take some of their strength with me into future races.”
Horrible weather—rain, mud, snow, graupel and high wind—took its toll. By the time Walmsley had descended into La Fouly aid station just on the other side of the Grand Col Ferret on the Italy-Switzerland border, roughly 110K in, he knew he needed to take a break and get in calories, to avoid what had happened at Western States. He knew it was going to cost him the win, but also that if he kept going he might not finish at all.
“In retrospect now, I think the cold could have been a bigger factor than I was realizing at the time,” he says. “In the cold, you tend to use a lot more calories to stay warm. That, combined with not eating as much as I would’ve liked after Courmayeur, could’ve been why my lack of good fueling hit me so hard.”
Meanwhile, Tollefson and Bowman were making moves for the top 10, having hung back for the first half of the race. “With so many great athletes and egos together on the world stage, it was clear that the race would go out relatively fast,” says Tollefson. “I decided to go with the patient-hunter approach.”
By Grand Col Ferret, the pair had worked their way up to the top five. For Tollefson, who lives and trains year-round in Mammoth Lakes, California, the snow and cold temps on top of the Col was no problem. “I actually loved it,” he says. “Living in a mountain town, I’m no stranger to less-than-optimal conditions. We had over 600 inches of snow this winter, which made for plenty of suffering on my daily runs outside.”
Bowman was not so lucky. “I froze and bonked a bit,” he says.
Tollefson surged ahead and by 123K he had moved into third place, where he would stay solidly until the finish line. “I felt strongest in the final 50K, slowly picking off the walking dead,” says Tollefson. “Much like last year, I think I miss timed my execution, as I had too much left in the tank at the finish line.”
Tollefson crossed the line in 19 hours 53 minutes, roughly 18 minutes under the previous course record (Francois D’Haene’s 19 hours 1 minute 54 seconds is the new time to beat). The finish marked his third consecutive podium at the UTMB series—he finished third last year, and came in second at the 100K CCC in 2015.
Asked how he churns out such consistent results, he says, “Intelligent training, patient racing and being too stubborn to give up.”
He also credits his success to training laps up and down Mammoth Mountain. “Specificity is crucial when preparing for a mountain ultra,” he says. “In fact, suffering up to the 11,053-foot summit of Mammoth Mountain multiple times in a singe run makes the climbs at UTMB seem relatively tame.”
The top five men all finished under the previous course record this year, with Walmsley squeaking in by just six seconds. “I am satisfied for today, but will be hungry for more tomorrow,” says Walmsley. “This race was unlike any ultra I’ve done. I need to keep learning to apply the right tactics for the right race, at the right times, and these races can turn into wins. I am hopeful to one day be a champion of big-time 100-milers.”
Miller likewise comes home with renewed motivation to return to UTMB. “You gotta hand it to Tim and Dylan for running so smart and controlled,” he says. “And Jim, I like that he was willing to go for it … and when it didn’t pan out, he regrouped and worked back up to fifth. In the end I was proud to hold onto top 10, but I’m hungry to try and do better in the future.”
While the top of the men’s podium remains elusive, American runners’ strong showing amid such a stacked field suggests that the first American male to win the race outright might not be so far in the future.
“I think Americans are finally realizing what it takes to train for this race specifically,” says Bowman. “In my mind, it’s essential for Americans to mimic the race terrain during their summer training block. For Americans who train specifically and in the right location, there’s no reason they can’t compete with the Europeans on their home turf.”