American Women Spearhead Stacked OCC Field

With six women ranked in the top 10, the U.S. is poised to put on a show at the UTMB World Series 50K finale

Photo: AFP via Getty Images

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Last week Allie McLaughlin jumped off a cliff in Switzerland. After skyrocketing head-first straight down perilously close to earth for several seconds, she pulled her parachute and floated to the valley floor.

“I thought doing my first BASE jump would hype me up for OCC,” McLaughlin says. “But I think it gave me adrenal fatigue. My goal this week is to get bored.”

Last year McLaughlin took the race out hot, leading until the final legs before a self-proclaimed “blow up” to finish sixth. While the edge she thought BASE jumping might give her is to be determined, McLaughlin has until Thursday, August 31st at 8:15 A.M. to go stir crazy before departing from the swiss village of Orsières and running 34.1 miles contouring the Mont Blanc massif to Chamonix. 

It’s called “the little Swiss sister” to the big dance around the hill. But with a monster 11,236 feet of climbing and arguably the most stacked field of any UTMB event this year, OCC will be more than an afterthought. 

Taking off from the Swiss village of Orsières, OCC takes runners through the Swiss resort town of Champex-Lac before crossing the border into France and going up and over the iconic Balme Pass with jaw-dropping views of the Mont Blanc massif. Runners will lastly take a slightly altered climb from previous years to La Flégère before a screaming, rooty descent into the heart of Chamonix and the finish line.

Watch OCC live on Thursday, August 31 starting at 8:15 CEST.

In fact, the women’s field at OCC may be the most competitive of any UTMB race held this week. Emkay Sullivan, one of those top-ranked athletes from the U.S., certainly thinks so.

“Over here in Europe, these shorter distances are insanely competitive,” Sullivan says. “So it’s exciting to go up against some of the world’s best. The women’s field is insane, and I just feel honored to be part of it.”

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And this year, the competition holds an unprecedented American flare. The U.S. headlines the race with six women ranked in the top 10—including all four of the first spots.

“It’s really cool for so many good American women to be on the start line,” 2014 Western States champion Stephanie Howe, who will toe the line at OCC, says. “I think objectively, this is the most competitive race out of all of them.” 

OCC has provided runners with the opportunity to race roughly the final 50K of the UTMB course since 2014. But it’s gained traction among the world’s best “short course” ultrarunners (if such an oxymoron exists) steadily over the past decade to position itself as one of the most competitive 50Ks in the world.

This year OCC will serve as the inaugural UTMB World Series 50K finale. More ultrarunners with leg speed than ever will be vying for the championship title—especially from the U.S.

In addition to McLaughlin, Sullivan, and Howe, favorites include Mammoth Lakes-based Dani Moreno, who won the Eiger Ultra-Trail® by UTMB 2023 35K in July, and 2023 World Trail Championships 40K fourth place finisher Jenn Lichter of Missoula, Montana. Last year Moreno battled Nuria Gil of Spain nearly all the way to the finish line, ultimately finishing just behind for third. Gil also returns to improve upon her finish last year. 

Lichter has stormed onto the American trail running scene over the past couple of years, winning the Run the Rut 50K in both 2021 and 2022 and taking second at the Speedgoat 50K last year despite taking a costly wrong turn. But she definitively stamped her mark this June by finishing just one spot shy of the podium at World’s. It was Lichter’s debut European race, proving she can translate her speed and strength onto the steep, relenting terrain of the alps in the process. 

With last year’s champion Sheila Avilés of Spain not racing as she recovers from surgery, it’s an American’s win for the taking. The question will be which one. Professional Ironman triathlete turned trail runner Heather Jackson will make her European trail racing debut to contribute to the star-studded American contingent. OCC is more technical than the ultras Jackson has raced in America, but she enters OCC with a powerful engine and fuel in the fire after dropping out from Western States due to an ankle sprain.

After incurring a sacral stress fracture during the post-partum build up in the winter, Rachel Drake has taken a more conservative and diligent approach to bouncing back. The Portland-based athlete, her partner Tyler Green (the 2023 Western States runner-up who will also be toeing the line at UTMB this year) and their son Lewis have been living in the Chamonix valley for the past six weeks. After that lonely and trying post-partum process, Drake says the approach of listening to her body while building her base through racing and training through the Alps has worked out surprisingly well.

“Getting access to the sustained climbs and descents of the course has been super helpful,” Drake says. “It gives me a lot of confidence going into the race. I’m feeling really good.”

Drake also enters the race with perspective. While she’d rather race through the all-day adventure of CCC, she’s grateful to get to race OCC while remaining attentive to her son and her body. Plus, she recognizes the privilege and prestige of the race. 

“OCC deserves to be celebrated in its own right,” Drake says.

Drake’s not the only one favoring the shorter distances over their specialties. OCC will be graced by both Western States champion Howe and 2022 UTMB winner Katie Schide.

Other athletes to watch out for are Americans Peyton Thomas and Natalie Sandoval, South Africa’s Tori McCann, and Golden Trail Series standouts Caitlin Fielder of New Zealand and Miao Yao of China.

Two-Time World Champion Stian Angermund, 2022 OCC Podium Finishers Martinez Perez and Robbie Simpson Headline Men’s Race

While not as American top-heavy, you can also expect stiff competition at the front of the men’s race. Stian Angermund of Norway will toe the line riding high on his back-to-back world titles in the 40K at the 2023 and 2022 World Championships. He’ll also be fueled by a little extra motivation for redemption after DNFing from CCC in 2021.

Martinez Perez of Spain and Great Britain’s Robbie Simpson are back to follow up on their outstanding second and third place finishes from last year, along with fourth place Arnaud Bonin and seventh place Antoine Thiriat both of France.

In addition to Andermund, they’ll be challenged by the likes of Italian duo Francesco Puppi and Nadir Maguet, as well as Poland’s Bartlomiej Przedwojewski, and Yoel de Paz of Spain.

The U.S. can hope to be made proud by 2023 Canyons 50K runner-up Jeshurun Small, Ryan Becker, who took second at the Gorge Waterfalls 50K this year, and 2023 Canyons 100K winner Cole Watson. 

Like the women’s race, 2022 Spanish winner Manuel Merillas will not return, opening the door for a new champion at the ninth OCC and inaugural UTMB World Series finale.

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