Like most people, I have a bucketlist of dream races and last August 2014, I accomplished one of my dreams as an Ultra Trail Runner. I finished UTMB (Ultra Trail Mont Blanc). The dream started with these pics (captured from a youtube video entitled “Salomon running season 2011”) and from the stories of those who have ran it and those who dreamt to run it.
|Going up from Lac Combal|
|Going down to Col de la Checrouit|
UTMB is simply insane. It is a 168 km footrace around the Alps and the Mont Blanc Massif with almost 10,000 meters of elevation gain and loss and crossing over three (3) countries – France, Italy, and Switzerland. The cutoff time is 46 hours. For the elite, it will take them less than 24 hours to finish but for most of the runners, they will be seeing 2 sunsets and 2 sunrises. Weather is mildly sunny and cold during the day and can drop to freezing during the night. It is dubbed as a race of superlatives and undoubtedly included in every Ultra Trail Runners bucket list.
The problem: How should a Filipino (who has never run an Ultra Trail Marathon abroad) run UTMB? What are the preparations needed to run it?
In order to qualify for UTMB, one should earn 7 qualifying points (now its 9points) by joining trail races accredited by the UTMB board. The point system depends on several categories set by the UTMB board but mainly based on the level of difficulty and distance of the race.
Prior to 2012, a Filipino runner who wish to obtain the necessary qualifying points for UTMB need to travel abroad and join races accredited by the UTMB board. At the time I started collecting points, I was lucky enough because there are already four (4) local races which offers qualifying points for UTMB and according to their distance and corresponding points they are Clark-Miyamit Falls Trail Ultramarathon (50miles - 2points), The North FacePhilippines 100k Ultra Trail (100k – 3points), King of the Mountain Four Lakes 100k (100k – 3points) and the infamous King of the Mountain Hardcore 100 MilesTrail Ultramarathon (100miles – 4points). Modesty aside, I ran all of theses races and by the time I submitted my application I already had a total of Fourteen (14) points and tons of experience. Filipino runners desiring to qualify for UTMB can now obtain the necessary points for UTMB without traveling abroad.
|2013 Clark to Miyamit Falls 50miles with RD Atty. Jonnifer Lacanlale|
|2013 Hardcore 100 Miles Trail Ultra with RD Jonel Mendoza|
After earning the required number of points and submitting the application before the cutoff in December every year, one needs to go through the lottery system. Meaning not all those who have the required number of points can immediately join UTMB. Luckily, out of more than 6,000 souls who applied I was one of the 2466 who were picked to run UTMB. Out of the Six (6) Filipinos who applied, three (3) of us got in. Alex Yap, Deo Encarnacion and yours truly.
The pre-race requirements like visa, accommodation, airline tickets are as tricky and difficult to manage as the training and preparation for the race itself and for the unexperienced might cause a great problem. The solution to this is to do your research and execute a well hatched plan.
Luckily, Simon Sandoval, Atty. Jon Lacanlale, Alex Yap, and others who made the trip prior were very helpful in providing tips and invaluable advices. Likewise, I took it as my moral obligation to pass it on. Thus, this article.
These three (3) are intertwined and might be a little tricky because of a chicken-and-egg situation wherein VISA requirements requires that you attach an Airline Ticket and Accomodation, on the other hand your afraid to book a ticket and accommodation because of fear of denial of VISA. Thus, I will discuss what needs to be done first.
ACCOMODATION and AIRLINE TICKETS
First and foremost reserve an accommodation/hotel in Chamonix (UTMB Start/Finish line). You can reserve an accomodation/hotel and pay for it later after the grant of your visa. Hotel Accommodations can be quite expensive and it would be best to share the apartment or condo unit with other Filipino runners so that you can split the bill. Book early as the accommodations will be filled up very fast as soon as the list of qualified runners is published. Book a place to stay as near as you can as to the finish line. Me, Atty. James Roldan and Deo Encarnacion were lucky enough to book a Chalet almost 1.5kilometers or 20minutes walk away from the town center.
As to airline tickets, book early or wait for travel expos in order to get cheap flights.
Book your accommodation/hotel and airline tickets but don’t pay for it yet. Use the booking information/reservation and attach the same to your VISA requirements.
It would be best to apply for a Schengen VISA in the French Embassy in the Philippines as the race start /finish line including the headquarters of the UTMB organizers is located in Chamonix, France.
Take note that one cannot apply for Schengen VISA until 90 days of your departure so make sure that when the time arrives you had all the necessary requirements like passport, bank certificates, travel insurance etc.
IMPORTANT Tip: Upon qualifying for UTMB do not forget to email the UTMB organizers beforehand and request for an invitation letter and attach this to your VISA application. This is your free pass to France as the French recognizes UTMB as a major sporting event thus will be more lenient and allow entry to anyone who has an invitation for UTMB.
TRAINING & PREPARATION
To run this race, one should be really prepared and committed to take on the journey. Meaning one needs to train smart and give importance to specificity and consistency. I made all my training, including the trail races I joined, specifically in preparation for UTMB. I made sure to get all the experience that I need to run this epic race including how it feels like to run a 100miler mountain race.
Just to toe-in at the start line of UTMB requires a long and arduous journey. A journey of self-realization and self-discovery which involves testing the limits of the human mind and body.
To prepare and in order to gain experience, I ran every Ultra Trail distance there is – 50k, 100k and 100miles in a span of more or less 2 years. By the time I toed-in at the start line of UTMB I already ran 3x 50k’s, 3x 100k’s, 2x 50miler’s and 2x 100miler’s – all local Ultra Trail races.
UTMB is held every last week of August during the last weeks of summer in the Alps. Thus, I started to progressively accumulate mileage since May 2014 right after I finished my 2nd Hardcore 100miles Trail Ultramarathon. I set it to 10 to 12 training weeks from May to 3rd week of August with a minimum weekly mileage of 100 kilometers of road and trail with significant elevation gain and loss and peaking at 150 kilometers to 200 kilometers per week with a Ten (10) day taper.
I knew that mountain training– and I mean serious mountain training – would be the secret to success in this race. So, during weekends I would go out for a long run in the mountains around the Province of Rizal, Tarlac, or Mt. Makiling with the Baboy Ramo Gang (mainly Jael Wenceslao, Majo Liao, and Gene Olvis). When training for a 100miler Ultra Trail it is best to have a group who could accompany you during long runs in the weekend.
|My training buddies (Majo Liao and Master Gene Olvis)|
UTMB is by far the race which has the most number of mandatory gears. This is mainly for the safety of the runners and due to the unpredictable weather conditions in the Alps.
Some of the mandatory gears are not available locally, thus, I sourced it out abroad --- from US, Hongkong, even as far as Europe. It would be best to collect, as early as possible, all the mandatory gears to prevent worry. With all the mandatory gears packed together with all the nutrition and hydration the vest can weigh up from 5 to 7 kilograms. It would be best to train running with this weight at your back during training to simulate running with a heavy pack.
|Complete Mandatory Gears. Check and Double Check|
|All our bags are packed and were ready to go|
Here are the list of mandatory gears for the UTMB with side comments:
1. Hydration Vest with Whistle
Ø Get a large capacity vest with at least 12liter capacity because of the mandatory gears
2. Mobile Phone
Ø Bring a cheap and light QWERTY tri band phone with long battery life and flashlight. This can serve also as your emergency light
3. Personal Cup
Ø There are a lot in the expo and you can buy it as cheap as 1Euro
4. Two Headlamps
Ø Bring a good running headlamp and backup (If PETZL is a sponsor of UTMB, get PETZL as they have battery stations in the AS which provides free battery replacements)
5. Jacket w/ Hood (10k Schmerber min/ RET lower than 13- Gore-Tex)
Ø Strict requirement
Ø This is separate to the buff and warm hat
8. Warm Hat
9. Identity Papers (passport photox)
Ø I photocopied my passport and put in my first aid kit
10.Survival Blanket (1.40m x 2m min)
11.Adhesive Elastic Band (100cmx6cm)
Ø Not available in the Philippines but you can buy it in the expo
12.Waterproof Gloves (Sealskinz)
14.Running Pants or ¾ with calf compression combo
Ø UTMB rules require that you have a piece of bottom which can cover your entire leg
15.Baselayer with min weight of 110g
Not mandatory but recommended:
1.Watch or GPS watch that could last 46 or more hours (Suunto Ambit 3)
2.BD Carbon Z Poles
Ø Not mandatory but 95% of the runners use poles
Ø Not mandatory but very useful when passing aid stations to put food while on the trail
4.Toilet Paper and/or Wetwipes
During race week there is a trail expo complete with all the latest gears including mandatory gears and runners can buy from the expo to complete their mandatory gears. You can even meet some of the elites doing some shopping or autograph signing for the fans.
|Big Fan of TNF Runner Sebastien Chaigneau|
|TNF Runner Stone Tsang from Hong kong (one of the fastest Asians in UTMB)|
|Compressport’s Nuria Picas, Julien Chorier, Fernanda Maciel and other elites autograph signing for fans|
The expo is one of my favorite during UTMB race week. All the major brands in the trail running industry are present and shows their latest equipment and gears. I am like a child in a candy store.
Arrived Monday Morning at Geneva airport and waited for Alex Yap and company for a 2 hour drive to Chamonix, France. If you’re travelling alone better to pre-book van transfer from companies like chamexpress and alpybus online because they have regular trips from Geneva Airport to Chamonix.
We were greeted by Atty. James and Deo Encarnacion (Filipino Ultra runner based in New Zealand) who arrived earlier in Chamonix during the weekend. The group went to town to roam around and see what there is to offer and thereafter grabbed some lunch.
|Salomon Chamonix, France|
|Acclimatization thru Gelato|
|Lunch with the Philippine contingent with their families and supporters|
All week long the town of Chamonix is alive due to the influx of runners and support crews. It’s like a town fiesta in the Philippines. The start/finish line is buzzed with runners, supporters and spectators as runners from PTL, CCC, TDS, and OCC start and finish in the middle of town near the church. Everything is supersized in Chamonix! Mountains, Trails, People, Energy Food etc. It was an atmosphere like no other.
|Start of the CCC|
The next few days leading to the race I made sure that I get enough sleep and nutrition. I was lucky that we were in the company of good cooks -- Ms. Charisse Roldan (wife of Atty. James Roldan) and Ruth Upsdell-Encarnacion (wife of Deo Encarnacion) prepared sumptuous and nutritious meals everytime for everyone. Each group has their own itinerary and plans so I spent the next few days visiting Aguille du Midi (highest point in the Mont Blanc Range), Mer de Glace, the town and Expos just to get the blood flowing in my legs.
|Catching some lunch just below Aiguille du Midi|
|Coffee time overlooking the Mer de Glace Glacier|
Registered on Thursday and checked in my Drop Bag which I will see during the race in Courmayeur (77km).
During the whole week we monitored the weather and it was raining occasionally. Due to the rains which brought colder weather, a lot of runners from the CCC (330km) dropped out due to the inclement weather. Weather forecast that on Friday (race start) it would be raining – bad news but as they say there is no bad weather only bad choice of clothing.
While we were monitoring Atty. James Roldan during TDS we received news that Xavier Thevenard (2013 UTMB Champion and 2014 TDS Champion) will be crossing the finish line soon and will be passing by our chalet so we grabbed our coffee mugs, chairs and blankets and waited for him.
UTMB begins late in the afternoon when the town is in full swing at 5:30PM. Race start this year is 1 hour later than the previous year. The start line of UTMB is nothing like it in the whole world. People are hanging out of hotel windows waving flags of all nationalities, cheering from behind the barriers lining the streets, and singing along to the music playing over the loudspeaker. But as the clock to race time counts down, the mood becomes a bit more solemn as the reality of the race starts to sink in.
|Stomach churning smiles|
Alex, Deo and Me were together in the crowd just right smack in the middle. Rain comes trickling down 30 minutes before the start and we had to don our rain jackets. As the official theme song of the UTMB played minutes before the start the mood changed from festive to solemn. I was probably feeling exactly the same as the 2466 other competitors: nervous, excited, and a little bit sick to our stomachs! I kneeled down to touch the ground, like what I do to all of my trail races, and prayed to the mountain gods to provide me strength to endure and the will to succeed. Seconds later, the gun went off and 2466 souls with the same desire to conquer UTMB were unleashed.
|Allez allez allez!!!!|
THE UTMB RACE
The first kilometer was slow as 2466 souls was simultaneously trying hard to find some ground to run. It was all lined up with supporters and people cheering and tapping runners shoulders encouraging them but somewhat in that flurry I felt peace and happiness as I knew it was the celebration of all the years of preparation and months of training.
After 2km, the pace picked up and I can’t blame people as it is tough not to get caught up in the excitement. I lost track of Deo and Alex and I quickly worked my way through runners until I hit the first climb which is a ski resort at about the 8 km mark up towards Le Delevret.
As I continued to overtake runners on the hill, I could feel the benefits of my training starting to kick in. The rain is getting heavier but I had to take off my jacket as I am already warmed up. We went into Saint Gervais at the 20km mark where the supporting cheers were certainly felt as deafening as it is loud. Everything was still looking good. Filled-up my water containers and quickly went off.
From St. Gervais (20km) to Refuge de la croix du bonhomme (45km) is a 25km stretch is the longest climb of the course. I felt good and I steadily run up the valley to Les Contamines (30km) where I met Ruth who told me I was the first Filipino to arrive. During the race it is really nice to see a familiar face to give you a morale boost. The aid station is full of runners and supporters everywhere. Downed a bowl of soup and packed in some cheese and cold cuts in my ziplock to be consumed later and went my way.
The climb from Les Contamines (30km) up to the croix du bonhomme marks the beginning of the climb into the alpine. At the bottom, the atmosphere is manic and rowdy as the locals got out of their homes, lined the steep climb and built bonfires which light the way.
The rain is still continuous and the temperature is going down while you’re going up the mountain. It was a beautiful sight seeing all the lights going up the mountain. All you could hear is the flowing water of the glaciers, the clickity clack of runners poles and your body breathing and heart pumping.
|Runners headlamps looks like Christmas lights in the mountain|
We went down to Les Chapieux (49km) where there’s a quick obligatory material check of three (3) random items and then it’s on an uphill asphalt road to the base of the Col de la Seine climb. While climbing the Col, I already felt the fatigue on my legs but the poles gave me a boost on the uphills as I can conserve energy while climbing. I was feeling sleepy as it was already around 4am when I arrived in Lac Combal (60km) and the stomach felt funny so I had to relieve myself.
|The spectacular view at Lac Combal|
The sunrise in Lac Combal was spectacular as the Alps reflects on the water of the lake. The sunrise on the Mont Blanc range climbing up to Arete du Mont Favre (68km) is my favorite part of the course. This is the place where I dreamt to be running and now I am doing it. Had to stop, sit and eat some Chippy and marvel at the magnificent view.
|Climb to Arete du Mont Favre|
The downhill from Col Checrouit (73km) to Courmayeur (77km) is a mix of winding single track along a ski course where a lot of locals positioned themselves to greet and cheer on the runners. I felt a bit nauseous because of the multitude of gels I downed the night before. I felt a bit of something going on my feet but there was still a few more kilometers before Courmayeur and I kept my pace steady.
|Downhill to Courmayeur|
|Running through the cobbled stones of Courmayeur|
I arrived at Courmayeur aid station which is a big gymnasium at around 9am and was dead tired and sleepy but was really glad because there is a pasta meal offered and I can get fresh clothes and nutrition from my drop bag. Discovered that I had some blisters in my foot due to the rains the whole night prior nothing major but need to control it before it worsens. Everyone should take advantage the stop at Courmayeur as it is one of the aid stations which offers sleep station manned by a volunteer who will wake you up at your desired time. I decided to get an hour of shuteye.
Then there was a misunderstanding with a race official when I had to argue that I am not dropping from the race because I just went to the officials table to have my race bib patched up with tape because it was torned in the middle and not because I am dropping out. After a few minutes of explanation and arguments, they cleared me up and I went my way.
It was already around noon when I climbed up to Refuge Bertone. I had over 80km on my legs now and felt like I was barely moving. By then, the runners were already spread out throughout the course.
The view of the Mont Blanc range from Refuge Bertone (82km) to Refuge Bonatti (89km) was spectacular which gave me my nth wind. I was running, free, fast and happy this gently rolling section. I was joined by an Irish runner named Craig Lloyd and we paced each other from then on to Champex Lac (125km). He fastpacked the whole UTMB course a year prior and is familiar to the course. From Refuge Bonatti it was all downhill to Arnuva (94km). I made sure to eat and get in some calories before the big climb to Grand Col de Ferret (99km).
|Going down to Arnuva|
The base of the climb to the Grand Col Ferret, marks the border between Italy and Switzerland and it was one of my favorite parts of the course. I was having a hard time climbing this section as I was having problems with my blisters and felt a bit nauseous. Arriving at the Grand Col I had 100 km in my legs and 6300 m of elevation gain behind me.
|Climb to Grand Col de Ferret with Irish runner friend Craig Lloyd|
From the Grand Col (99km) is a long 17km descent down to the valley 1500meters below in Praz de Fort – the longest in the course. It may be downhill, but it definitely wasn’t as easy as it looks. The downhill sections are actually harder on the legs than the uphill parts, and 17km of it can be pretty rough on the knees. It was a mix of run and walk for me.
|Downhill to La Fouly and Praz de fort|
It was getting dark when I arrived at Praz de Fort and some of the locals set up some of their own aid stations just outside their homes donned with coffee, biscuits and encouragement. It’s hard to pass up these offer. Then it’s a 300 meter climb to Champex-Lac (124 km) where I was greeted by tons of runners, supporters and volunteers.
|Champex-Lac Aid Station|
I was hungry and immediately downed a bowl of soup and a plate of pasta and cheese. Minutes after finishing my meal I knew I had to doze off somewhere luckily there’s a sleeping tent available. All I need is an hour of shuteye to reset and it’s good to go again.
|Champex-Lac Sleeping Tent|
When I woke up I felt all the fatigue in my legs and I had to warm it up to gain mobility as the muscles became stiff because of the cold. Downed a cup of coffee and I went out to the cold dark night.
Last 45km and three more mountains to climb. The last 3 mountains by the words of another runner is evil. Seriously, seriously, evil. It will suck out the life in you and chew you up if you come unprepared.
During the climb out of Champex-Lac my headlamp (Petzl Nao) blinked thrice meaning it was running out of battery. Then it dawned into me that I forgot to swap fresh new batteries from my drop bag. Switched off my primary and got out my secondary headlamp (Black Diamond Ion). The emergency headlamp is supposed to run around 6hours or so but after an hour the emergency headlamp died also. I don’t know the primary reason but I suspected that it has old batteries as I bought it on sale at the expo p – I was cursing all along and regretted that due to my obsession in saving weight I replaced my trusty Petzl Myo with this lamp.
First there was blisters, then some nausea, then this? I was in a really bad situation. I had to literally follow footsteps of the runners who’s in front of me and if they drop me wait for another runner for their light for 3-5kilometers to the peak where I realized that this is going to spell disaster if I keep doing this. I had to stop and literally beg for AAA batteries for my NAO but no one has it until a Good Samaritan, an Italian runner, lent me his secondary headlamp.
By the time I got into Trient (139km) it was already around 3:00 am, I wasn’t doing so well. I was really nauseous and couldn’t keep food in and the blisters were already bloody. Plus the fact that I have been eating the same food at the aid stations since the race started but I do not have any choice so I turned back to the food table provided by the race organizers. Soup, French bread, cold cuts and cheese again. ARGH! If I could just have a plate of rice and adobo it would be heaven sent and I could blaze thru the next two evil mountains.
This is one of the lowest points of my race but experience taught me to down the soup, eat the cheese and bread, strap my vest and poles and turned down the trail. I was angry and disappointed at myself for all the blunders and I thought I did not come over halfway around the globe so that I could drop out of this race. Hell no!
Started the 700m climb to Catogne (143km) and dawn is breaking. Second sunrise and felt my nth wind again and started running down to Vallorcine (149km). That soup, bread, cheese again?!? I was really empty and bonking but I had no choice but to eat and down some calories.
I was one mountain from the finish. The last mountain is the most evil of all evil mountains and it was sadistic. It was made from pure slate and sharp rocks. When you are your worst and lowest moments it’s tough to climb the steep, rocky, and unrelenting mountain.
|Last climb before heading down to Chamonix|
After you made it to the top there is still a good number of kilometers of ankle-twisting rocks and boulders before reaching La Tete aux Vents (157km). However, it offers a majestic view of the Mont Blanc range. I even got a chance to see a few mountain goats with their young running around the slope. A few more kilometers – which looks deceivingly short on the race profile – to La Flegere (160km) the last cutoff point of the race, and then 7km of switchbacks and singletracks running alongside a ski resort to the finish.
By this point I only have less than 3 hours to the cutoff time, as I descended down the trail I was super bonking and felt a mixture of pain and exhaustion but the thought of possibly finishing UTMB kept me moving, and I was almost to the finish.
I emerged from the trail on the road and people lined up the streets waiting for the runners to finish, cheering them on, and congratulating them and then less than a kilometer from the finishline, I saw Gavin (Deo’s friend who came all the way from the UK to support him) and he ran alongside of me and handed me the Philippine Flag.
Going into the Chamonix town center the town grew louder as I approached the finish line. My body gave me a last push and moved me toward the finish line with ease. It was pure joy. It was indescribable. All I can say is, all the sacrifices and pain of training and race are all worth it. I then began to thank the Great Architect of the Universe in giving me the opportunity in finishing this epic race.
|With fellow Filipino UTMB finisher Deo Encarnacion|
POST RACE THOUGHTS
There are no finishers medal in the UTMB. Just this vest to show to the world that I am part of the few who finished the epic race.
UTMB is a difficult race and pain is all part of the race. Failure is also part of the race. What you do about the pain and failure tells what kind of person you are. It simply exemplifies life. We experience pain. We commit failures. We get up. Brush it off. Move on. Learn from it and get on with our lives.
The important thing is the journey and what you picked up, learned, realized and gained along the way while doing the thing that you love the most. It is all about the people you meet, the friends you make, the emotions you felt, the experiences and memories you keep.